Saturday, 9 October 2010

Who’s to be the next prime minister?

King Albert II of Belgium has sent out Bart De Wever, the leader of the Flemish nationalists, to restart the negotiations for a new Belgian government. On Friday evening he appointed him for a limited mission that should end on the 18th of October. In what preceded the decision, it became clear that a battle for becoming the next prime minister has put up an additional difficulty.

The king invited De Wever (picture from Pierre-Yves Thienpont) at 7:30 pm on Friday, after he had consulted each of the presidents of the seven parties that  had negotiated for a new government up to now (the christian democrats, socialists and greens from each side of the country and the Flemish nationalists). The liberals were again left out, although De Wever, in his talks with the king,  had insisted to consult them.

This element  shows the complexity of the situation. The core dispute remains that Flanders has an outright centre-right majority and  French-speaking Belgium a centre-left. In the last two decades the Belgian sum of both was a centre-left federal government. This explains why a huge majority in Flanders nowadays demands radical devolution, something most French-speaking parties want to prevent.

With the French-speaking liberals of the MR indicating that they are prepared to discuss this radical devolution, there is now an overall majority in parliament for this. But as the three left parties in French-speaking Belgium (socialists, Christian democrats and greens) are tied to each other and refuse to let the MR in, there is no majority in Wallony neither for devolution, nor for a federal government with strong centre-right accents. The stakes are high, not the least because budget cuts for about 22 billion euros are on the agenda in the next four years.

In the hours before De Wever was invited to the palace for the second time in two days, there were some clear indications that the negotiations have definitely become a battle about who’s to become the next prime minister.  Elio di Rupo, the leader of the French-speaking socialists and the other great winner of the elections, tried to lure the Flemish socialists and Christian democrats into proposing one of their own prominent figures to take the lead in the negotiations. Clearly this was intended to prevent De Wever of getting that role.

De Wevers right hand Ben Weyts was giving a tv-interview on Friday evening just when the news broke that the king had invited the Flemish nationalist leader again. Weyts definitely enjoyed and defended the fact that his party and its boss were now taking the lead in Belgium. This has been a contested issue within the ranks of the Flemish nationalists, but De Wever has an absolute authority in his ranks nowadays. A new opinion poll on Friday showed his party gaining another 5 % of the votes in Flanders, compared to the elections of June, and De Wever as being by large the most popular in the northern half of Belgium.

As the last few days both Di Rupo and De Wever pushed the king towards a higly political choice between themselves and between negotiations with or without the liberals, the palace finally found an elegant way out: it appointed De Wever for a mission of limited scope, officially within the framework preferred by di Rupo. The statement of the palace, issued at 9:15 pm said that he has to find out in ten days if a compromise can be reached with the seven parties (without the liberals) on the four most intricate institutional issues.

De Wever already added that his role is limited to see if one can continue with the seven parties, but did not exclude that he might see the liberals to explore this issue. Just as when he was ‘informateur’ for a short while last June, he announced that he would work in all discretion

To baptise this new-born child, king Albert again proved to be highly creative. Like with ‘preformateur’ di Rupo three months ago, he found a new name for the task he assigned to  De Wever; he is entitled with ‘a mission of clarification’ (‘mission de clarification’ in French, ‘verduidelijkingsopdracht’ in Dutch). A ‘mission of enlightment’ seems yet not to be on the agenda.


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