Saturday, 17 May 2014

Bis repetita placent?


One week before election day the polls in Belgium – often too cheap to be professional - have once again demonstrated how unreliably they are. The Friday evening television news-shows and the Saturday morning newspapers were full of scores going in all directions. The Flemish Christian democrats are the main victim: their results show a gap from 15 (in one poll) to 20 % (in another one) of the votes, which makes a difference between staying a large party and the risk of becoming irrelevant. Worst is the impression that the polls in at least some way reflect the preferences of the customer.

Nevertheless, some trends do not change. One is that the Flemish nationalists in Flanders are by far in the lead, with probably over 30 % of the votes and with some luck also – and not unlike the British fleet hundred years ago – twice as big as the main contender. This confirms what happened in the  tv-debates last weekend, when the leader of the nationalist NVA, Bart De Wever, talked the man who pretended to be his main challenger, the Christian democratic chief minister of the Flemish region Kris Peeters, into pieces.

The latter should now hope that its party can recuperate some of the general sympathy for the former Christian democratic and hugely popular prime minister Jean-Luc Dehaene (73), who died suddenly on Thursday while travelling in Brittany and who will have a state funeral two days before election day. The other big trend in Flanders is the fragmentation of the left, with the social democratic SPA – and maybe also the union wing of the Christian democrats - losing heavily to the Greens and the former maoïst extreme left PVDA. The latter, although never represented in parliament in the past, has received a lot of exposure in the media, that are fond of  the strong rhetoric of its leader.

The situation in French-speaking part of Belgium is more complicated. Among the three million inhabitants of the Wallony-region, the socialist party (PS) will stay the largest with about 30 % (38 % in the elections of 2010). The liberals (MR) would obtain about 22 %, and two other parties, the greens and the christan democrats, a few percentages above 10. Almost certainly the formerly maoïst PTB (the same party as the PVDA in Flanders) will enter into parliament, with scores that waver between 6 and 9 %. A sixth party, the quite chaotic and extreme right Parti populaire, might also gain some seats (it had one in 2010).

Among the one million citizens of the (mainly French-speaking) city of Brussels, the liberals have a slight lead on the socialists, but both with results just above 20 %. The Brussels nationalists (FDF), the Greens and the Christian democrats compete for the third place. For a long time the French-speaking part of Belgium was the most stable, with only two parties needed to form a government (in Flanders it has been 3 or 4 since 1999) and the socialists clearly in the lead. Now it is struck as much as the north by fragmentation and instability.

Nevertheless last Monday the leader of the French-speaking socialists, Paul Magnette, the mayor of Wallony’s largest city Charleroi and half a year younger than De Wever, demonstrated his ability to match the Flemish nationalist leader in a passionate tv-debate with him that lasted more than an hour (picture). In the end Magnette won narrowly on points, because he continued to smile and joke whereas De Wever turned into bitterness. Under pressure, the latter accentuated his institutional agenda and neglected to elaborate on the economic reforms he and his party propose.

So it seems Belgium is heading for a scenario on the day after the elections that is quite similar to the one of 2010, when it took 540 days to form a new government. The unreliability of the polls is now the best hope that history will not repeat itself.

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