Sunday, 27 March 2011

Caretaking at war

No progress has been signalled since Wouter Beke, the president of the Flemish Christian democrats, was put in the driver’s seat at the beginning of March to form a new Belgian government. In the meantime an acrimonious debate grew about the question how much care a caretaking government can take.
Wouter Beke has been seeing quite regularly the main antagonists, Elio di Rupo and Bart De Wever, since he was appointed on the 2nd of March. Sometimes he spoke with them apart, sometimes with both together. A few times he met other party presidents. The elements that have come out of these talks suggest that almost no progress has been made. Belgian politicians are still seeking for a first compromise in the government negotiations that have been going on for 287 days since the elections of June the 13th.
The last weeks a new polemic drew more attention than the negotiations itself. It was started when three weeks ago one of the leaders of the Flemish nationalist NVA, Jan Jambon, said that it was impossible that the caretaking government of Yves Leterme would handle the question of the pluri-annual budget that has to be introduced to the European Commission at the end of April, following the introduction last year of the so-called ‘European semester’ for stronger budgetary control. In one breath Jambon added that this meant that government-negotiations had to bring in results towards the end of April or should be given up by then.   
Jambons statement was inspired by the fact that the caretaking government, with liberals, Christian democrats and the Parti Socialiste, had just introduced the budget for 2011 in parliament. In Belgian political tradition this is normally not done by a caretaking government, but as the negotiations for a new government have lasted longer than ever before,  prime minister Leterme (picture) decided to go ahead and to find parliamentary support for it.
With his coalition Leterme still commands a simple majority in parliament, but NVA, the big winner of the election, is not part of it. This means that the Flemish nationalists are sometimes playing opposition to this government, sometimes consulted by the caretaking government, and at the same time crucial for the formation of the new government that should succeed this one.
The words of Jambon caused a lot of angry reactions, but were confirmed by his president Bart De Wever at the beginning of last week. Seemingly irritated De Wever said that the situation cannot last forever whereby a so-called caretaking government is doing more and more what a normal government would do, ‘including declaring war’. With the latter he meant the decision to send 6  F-16’s and a mine hunter to the international coalition that is trying to impose a no-flyzone on Libya.
De Wevers comments provoked an angry an unprecedented reaction of the prime minister and all seven Flemish Christian democratic ministers in the caretaking government. With quotes of De Wever listed up, they accused the leader of the Flemish nationalist of erratic behaviour. Leterme himself added that ‘while we take our responsibility to keep the country running, all attempts of De Wever have ended in failure’.
The polemic provoked comments and discussions on all sides on the issue of how far a caretaking government can be more than caretaking. The main political result is that the Flemish Christian democrats and the Flemish nationalist have been torn apart, whereas up to now they seemed to work closely together in trying to achieve a radical institutional reform.
In more general terms, the confusion is almost total. With the deadline of Jambon and De Wever in mind, speculation is growing that at some point the nationalists will be dumped or quit themselves, whereafter the caretaking government might be transformed into a genuine coalition of the three traditional parties in the north and the south of Belgium. An important element in this is no doubt that the outgoing prime minister Yves Leterme, who seemed at the end of his career last June, is regaining some popularity with the media and the electorate.
On the other hand the De Wever and the NVA indicate that they will put maximal pressure on the other Flemish parties not to start a coalition without having obtained an institutional reform of the French-speaking parties. Indirectly this means they are trying to pressure the Flemish liberals and Christian democrats towards giving up even the caretaking government.
The latter probably will not do this, and meanwhile stress that when they would form a government without the nationalists, the institutional reform should be at least as radical as when De Wever were into the coaltion. Which brings the whole negotiations again at point zero.
New elections before the end of June remain therefore the most likely outcome, although all politicians are saying that they do not want these. But there is so much difference between acts and words these days in Belgium that these statements, like many others, are unlikely to be sincere.

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