Sophie Wilmès and her outgoing government obtained the confidence vote of the federal parliament on Thursday with 88 votes against 44. It was a week full of strange images, in which Wilmès acted in the first place as head of the National Security Council with all regional governments and many experts in it, just as she did before the astonishing political events of last weekend. These do not bother the public opinion, because of the corona-crisis, but have left deep wounds that may never heal again.
Already on Monday noon it became clear that the deal announced by the royal negotiators Patrick Dewael and Sabine Laruelle at 23 hours on Sunday was more shaky than they had presented it. Above all: nothing seems to have been put on paper. But in the meantime both royal negotiators had already reported to the king, at 10 am on Monday, and been dismissed with congratulations. Philip received one hour later Ms. Wilmès. He nominated her ‘formateur’ of the new government.
The change had already been downgraded by Bart De Wever, the president of the Flemish nationalist NVA, on the Flemish public radio that morning. ‘I still do not see what has changed. If Wilmès needed special powers to combat the corona-virus, no sensible political party would oppose this. But I do not see any reason to vote the confidence in her minority government.’ He denied again having demanded that he himself would become prime minister of a new emergency cabinet.
Later that day Dewael acknowledged that he had twisted the agreement of Sunday evening a little, and had added the proposal of a vote of confidence during his press conference. He did so, he said, to avoid the image of the caretaker government, with only 38 seats in support, receiving special powers in which parliamentary control would be limited.
Wilmes in the meantime kept her caretaking government in power, and went with the whole team to the palace to take the oath on Tuesday morning at 11hours. As usual an official picture of the new government with the king was taken, but this time with a distance of at least 1 meter between each person, to comply with the government measures against corona.
Many observers pointed to the fact that of the 13 ministers 10 are liberals, 7 from the French-speaking MR of the prime minister. With two MR-people in the other three functions that are normally also appointed during a formation of a federal government – the EC-Commissioner and the two assembly-presidents – and one for the Flemish liberals, 13 of the 16 functions go to the liberals and 9 (or 56 %) to the MR, a party that commands only 10 % of the seats in the federal parliament. The distortion is the consequence of the strange composition of the centre-right government of Charles Michel in 2014 and of the fact that N-VA left that coalition in 2018. The three remaining ministers are from the Flemish Christian Democrats, once the leading party of the country, who do not really feel at ease in this blue ocean of excellencies.
Wilmès made her government speech on Tuesday afternoon before the plenary of the Chamber, with only the group leaders present (to avoid too many people in one room). That evening she presided the National Security Council that announced drastic new measures against corona, which are almost similar to a lockdown of the whole country. Then, on Thursday morning, the group leaders held their debate on Wilmès’s declaration, whereby N-VA announced it would not vote the confidence. In the afternoon, the vote followed, with the extreme-right Vlaams Belang voting also against, as did the extreme-left PTB.
Meanwhile the political editors of the media tried to reconstruct the events of last weekend. In the Flemish media the initiative that started the events on Thursday 12 March was attributed to Conner Rousseau, the young president of SP.A, the Flemish socialists, who brought De Wever and Paul Magnette (president of the Parti Socialiste) together to make an emergency cabinet. In the French-speaking media it was Magnette who took that initiative. Even spinning has a communal twist in Belgium.
The rest of the story is similar in both parts of the country: Magnette engaged himself fully, then met resistance, first with the MR (they wanted to keep Wilmès and a significant number of their outgoing ministers), then with Ecolo (they refused to work with the N-VA), finally with his own mighty party-federations of Liège and Brussels (also rejecting cooperation with N-VA). And so, at 11am on Sunday morning, when in Parliament technicians were still negotiating, he came out on tv with a verbal outburst to annihilate the idea. 'When Magnette takes a turn, it is always with smoking tires', a journalist remarked.
These stories were the little pleasure of the in-crowd. The public at large was - to say the least - not at all interested, and concentrating on making the best of the corona-perils. But it is obvious that the new old government will start to shake as soon as corona calms down and more political choices about the economic bills will have to be made. Nor can it be for long then that the Parti Socialiste will tolerate empty-handed a plethora of ministers from a competing party still considerably smaller than itself.
But the biggest scar may lie with Bart De Wever and the N-VA: they have incurred, even at the height of a serious crisis, the non possumus from all French-speaking parties except maybe the MR, regardless of the fact that they are still the largest party of the country, with 5 seats more than the PS. The conclusion there is obvious: that the road to Belgian power – opened five years ago by Charles Michel without obstruction from king Philip - is henceforth closed and only Flanders remain a possibility to exercise power.
All to be seen of course when the dust of the corona-crisis settles down and when will be clear how big the damage is. The times are too shaky to make stable prognoses.
We interrupt this blog once more, as there is, after 294 days, again a functioning government in Belgium. But we have a feeling that we will be back quite soon.