Sunday, 8 May 2011

In the summertime ..

After 329 days without a new government in Belgium, the next ten days will be the last wherein it is still possible to start the procedure to hold new elections before the summer-holidays. The talk therefore is more and more that the caretaking government will continue till October 2012, when national elections could be held together with local ones. Meanwhile the threat of the Flemish nationalist to break-up negotiations at the end of April if no compromise was reached did not materialize.

Wouter Beke, the 36-years old party president of the Flemish Christian Democrats, is still leading the negotiations for a new Belgian government, 67 days after he was appointed by King Albert. He continues to negotiate principally with the two main antagonists, Bart De Wever (40), the leader of the Flemish nationalist NVA, and Elio di Rupo (59), the leader of the French-speaking socialists of the PS. Both were the obvious winners of the parliamentary elections of June the 10th last year.

It is expected that Beke will end his mission somewhere this week or early next week. Some sources say he made a little bit progress, other ones he made almost none at all. The crucial element is that in order to hold elections on the last possible Sunday before the summer holiday – on the 26th of June – parliament should be dissolved on the 17th of May. The next possibility to dissolve parliament is at the end of July.
Therefore the word ‘summernate’ (instead of hibernate) has come into vogue among political observers: the negotiations will drag along the whole summer at least, and the caretaker government of Yves Leterme will continue to run the country. After the summer the fever of the local elections of October 2012 will start to rise, and so no government will be formed and new elections can be postponed till then. Both the NVA and the PS may bet on their popularity on the national level to boost their positions in the local councils in the elections of October next year.
The caretaker government can do a lot, while it still commands a simple parliamentary majority, and takes up the day-to-day administration. But it cannot internally agree on fundamental reforms like budget cuts, pension- and labour market reform, the overhaul of the justice system or a new migration policy.
The ultimate test could be the proposals for budget reform that Belgium is supposed to send to the European Council of June like every other member state of the Union, as a consequence of the new rules on  budgetary and economic governance. But the first exercise this year seems not to need an elaborated and detailed plan. So it is possible that the caretaker government might still rather easily find an agreement on this.
The Flemish nationalist NVA, who were in the opposition at the end of the previous legislature, are not involved in that process. At the end of March they had threatened to stop all negotiations if the caretaker government would continue to proceed with the budget plan. Meanwhile that threat has been abandoned by Bart De Wever, for unclear reasons.
Last Sunday the nationalist leader suddenly proposed that after Wouter Beke would have ended his mission in the next ten days, Elio di Rupo should be named formateur by the king, with a mission to go for a new government. If di Rupo would not accept this, he himself should become formateur, De Wever said.
Last week a row came up about the role of the King in the negotiations of the last eleven months, after a new book disclosed that he may have threatened the politicians with a refusal to accept new elections. The Flemish nationalist, mostly republicans, immediately accused the King of being biased against Flanders, and to obstruct every attempt of De Wever to take up the command. This point of view was however rejected by most other Flemish parties, who quoted earlier comments by De Wever that he was not interested in becoming prime minister.
In the meantime, seven days after De Wevers  latest proposal, Elio di Rupo still has not answered to the idea that he should take over from Wouter Beke and go for  the formation of a new government wherein he would be the new prime minister. Nor has De Wever repeated that he is ready to take over if di Rupo gets cold feet. Beke seems to do as if all these discussions do not concern him. At the moment neither he, nor the rest of the country know when his mission might end.

It will be, no doubt, another strange week in the endless negotiations for a new Belgian government ….

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