Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Never aspire to become prime minister?

After the Flemish nationalist leader Bart De Wever,  his main rival, the Flemish christian democrat Kris Peeters, has now also definitely ruled out that he wants to become the next prime minister of Belgium. This may well be the strongest symptom that Belgium is nearing a new big crisis.

In every democratic country governments are appointed through elections. In these elections groups of politicians who think more or less the same about societal issues, organise a party, write a program with proposals,  designate a leader they want to see taking up the reins of the next government. And if a party become the biggest group in the new parliament, it is their leader who becomes the new prime minister.

This key-rule of modern democracy is now under threat in Belgium. Already in 2010 Bart De Wever, the president of the Flemish nationalists,  after a few months gave up any attempt to become prime minister, although his party had won a surprisingly big electoral victory and suddenly had the largest group in parliament. This was, De Wever said, because king Albert II and the Belgian establishment did everything to prevent a Flemish nationalist of taking up command of the country.  But many saw this as a blunt refusal to take any role in the government of a country most people in his party would love to see  – at least in the long term – disappear.

The latter view seems now to have found new proof in a remark De Wever made on the 13th of April, before a Dutch audience in Amsterdam: ‘the worst that can happen to you in Belgium is to win elections. Or even worse: to become prime minister. The ‘16’ in the housenumber of the prime minister’s office (rue de la Loi 16 in Brussels,see picture rf) is about the percentage of votes you keep after you’ve held the office’.

Besides of being inexact – parties of the last five prime ministers in Belgium lost about 1 to 6 % of the votes when they were kicked-out after two terms, whereas in the Netherlands the loss for the last three amounted each time to 13 to 14 % - the remark confirms how De Wever has throughout the present campaign consistently refused to say that he wants to become the next prime minister. Opinion polls suggest that his party will by far be the largest in the next parliament.

 Now Kris Peeters, up to now the chief minister of Flanders region and the main candidate of the Christian democrats, has confirmed in an interview on Saturday (the 3th of May) that he wants to stay where he is and ‘under no condition will switch to the federal government’.  He too does not want to be prime minister of Belgium, not even when his party, one of the most traditional establishment parties of the country, will be victorious.

That makes two of a sort. In what the polls expect to be the hierarchy of political groups in parliament after the 25th of May, the first two parties in Flanders – nr.1 and nr. 4 in the whole of Belgium – refuse to propose a prime minister to lead the state they are campaigning in. That leaves the post almost certainly to a candidate of the French-speaking minority of the country. Probably the most remarkable thing about this is that nobody in the media or in the political class seems to bother.

The second biggest group in the federal parliament will probably be the Parti socialiste (PS) again, with the outgoing prime minister Elio di Rupo – who filled the leadership-vacuum left by De Wever in 2010 – as its main candidate. The third one are the French-speaking liberals (MR), where Didier Reynders, the minister of Foreign Affairs and deputy-prime minister for the last 15 years, is quite keen to make a promotion. But the latter is heavily contested in his own party and has many enemies all over the place. And the former could well be put aside in his own party, if – as the polls predict – the electorate in French-speaking Belgium reward his leadership of the country with a big defeat.

Seven years ago no less than five candidates contested the next prime ministership in Belgium. Nowadays more and more parties seem to consider that job as a political risk better not to take. The fact that not only the greatest of these parties, the Flemish nationalists, but also the second largest in Flanders, the very traditional Christian democrats who occupied the prime minister’s office for 40 out of the 70 years since 1944, say they are no longer interested, may well be a bad omen for what yet has to come.



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