Saturday, 4 September 2010

Game over

Elio di Rupo, the ‘preformateur’ in Belgiums government negotiations, finally handed in his resignation to King Albert on Friday the 3th of September. The King is now looking for a way out, and might send Bart De Wever, leader of the Flemish nationalists (NVA, see picture) into the field.

In the five days since he failed to reach a compromise, the leader of the French-speaking socialists explored multiple ways to change the opinion of the two Flemish parties that had rejected his proposals. He corrected these only marginally, having probably sensed that the limit had been reached for the two other francophone parties, the greens (Ecolo) and the Christian democrats (CDH).

By suggesting to invite the social partners into the play last Sunday, the King steered his ‘preformateur’ towards increasing the pressure on the Flemish Christian democrats (CDV). In the past they were always sensitive for the argument that nationalist causes should not undermine the functioning of Belgium. So di Rupo may have asked both the nation employers federation and the Christian labour union (the largest in the country and very influential in both CDV and CDH) to plead for a more moderate stance.

He himself went on Wednesday to see Kris Peeters, the Christian-democratic chief minister of the Flemish regional government, apparently hoping that he would be less eager to follow the nationalists than the interim-president of the party, Wouter Beke.

But the attempt backfired, as the CDV is still traumatized by its lowest election score ever (17 %, the first time it went under 20 %) on June the 10th. Many voices in the party explain this defeat by saying that CDV and its prime minister abandoned their nationalist profile that had brought them huge electoral victories between 2004 and 2007.

So on Friday morning a few bitter statements from French-speaking politicians – threatening that if these proposals were rejected, all concessions of the last week would be taken back – were already indicating that for di Rupo it was ‘game over’. A formal meeting of all seven parties in the afternoon only confirmed this.

King Albert announced at about 7 pm on Friday that di Rupo had proposed his resignation but that the King would keep this proposal on hold, pending a new round of royal consultations with the party presidents over the weekend.

Rumours of a change of the scenery were already spreading during last week. Bart De Wever, the NVA-leader, seems to have had contacts with the French-speaking liberals of the MR, led by the caretaking Finance minister Didier Reynders, although the latter denied this. The rumours were certainly not contradicted by a statement of Reynders on Wednesday, in which he proposed a radical institutional reform with elements that sounded like music for NVA and CDV.

A coalition of the five biggest parties after the last election – the liberals of both sides, the PS, the NVA and CDV – would have 101 seats in the lower House, just enough for a two third majority. De Wever cannot but like this, as the liberals are nearer to his own centre-right economic principles.

In such a coalition he can also drop the Flemish socialist, with whom the relations have become more and more tense. That is because of the preparation for the battle for the city of Antwerp in the local elections of 2012. De Wever will there almost certainly be the challenger of the present socialist mayor, Patrick Janssens.

One problem with the MR though is that Olivier Maingain, the leader of the Brussels nationalists who leads the party in the capital, might become an obstacle for a solution on the electoral district of BHV. But this is compensated by the fact that the CDH are set aside. Their leader, Joëlle Milquet, has been a pain in the ass for almost everybody – and especially the Flemish parties -in the last three years.

If this scenario should be tested, the king shall have to send out De Wever to obtain it. Didier Reynders is probably unacceptable for di Rupo, except if the former is ready to give way for the prime ministership to the latter, which seems rather unlikely. If De Wever is sent into the field, he too shall try to lure the PS-leader in this way. Indeed di Rupo has nothing else to gain in the new scenario, in which he also has to break-up the unofficial cartel with Milquet that brought him back into the play and into the government after his big election defeat in 2007.

Personal rivalries, party turf wars and nationalist tensions – and in the background a cacophony of media shouting - make a cocktail that seems all too similar to the one of 2007, but with a more poisonous stroke: even if the De Wever is genuinely honest during negotiations, there is also a logic taking hold that each scenario that is tried and fails makes the divorce of Belgium more worth a try, especially in Flanders. The other parties are well aware of this, and that makes them every minute more suspicious about the big winner of the elections in Flanders.

In the meantime there is still no word said about the 22 billion euro to be found to reduce the budget deficit towards the year 2015. That is about 13 % of all government expenditures in Belgium. The good news that tax revenues are growing faster than expected this year is only a small consolation.

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