Whyte Paper on the 2014 Belgian elections

Press Release – 10/04/2014
April 10, 2014
Whyte Opinion: L’Echo October 2014
October 17, 2014

Belgium’s ‘Mother of all Elections’ in a nutshell for non-Belgians

Belgium’s
‘Mother of all E
lections’

in a nutshell for non-Belgians


§  Flemish nationalist party N-VA gains 1/3 of Flemish votes; growing difference between political landscapes of Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels

§  Outgoing ‘tripartite’ federal coalition keeps majority

o   In Flanders, the traditional parties remain relatively stable

o   In French speaking Belgium, socialists decline but remain leading political party, liberals win; gap between socialists and liberals decreases

o   Socialists remain Belgium’s largest political family

§  Mixed picture for ecologists: steep decline for French speaking Ecolo, Flemish Groen grows steadily

§  Extreme right-wing Vlaams Belang, which was excluded from power, loses most of its seats, which translates in a bigger variety of potential coalitions


26 May 2014

1   An exceptional political context

On May 25th the so-called ‘Mother of all Elections’ took place.  This name refers to the fact that federal, regional and European elections coincided; at least equally important, it also reflects the exceptional political context of these elections:

  • An exceptional outgoing Federal Government: it took 541 days to form the outgoing Federal Government, which was headed by French speaking socialist Elio Di Rupo.  The government was formed in a context of institutional, economic, financial and budgetary crises and had to adopt a range of difficult measures.  Due to the long negotiations, the government had only two and a half years left to implement its coalition agreement.  Strong scepticism reigned when Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo (PS) and his team took office; at the end of its term, the government received mixed feedback but got some recognition for a relatively high degree of performance in utterly difficult times.
  • The growing importance of Flemish nationalists of N-VA and the decreasing symmetry between the Flemish and French speaking political landscape.
    • Flemish winner of the last federal elections, N-VA was not part of the federal coalition.  After the even more successful local elections of 2012, they were expected to win even more seats.  This resulted into speculation on another round of complicated and lengthy coalition negotiations.
    • At French speaking side, PS was the winner of last federal elections and delivered outgoing Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, who had to defend a series of difficult decisions and unpopular measures.
  • The election campaign was criticized for being relatively harsh but was praised for its strong focus on fundamental economic and social choices.  During the campaign, the gap between N-VA and French speaking political parties became even wider.
  • Once the new coalitions will be formed, there will be a unique period of 5 years of political stability (next regional and federal elections scheduled for 2019; next local elections to take place in 2018).  This translates in a unique window of opportunity for future government parties and a clear eagerness to be part of the coalitions.  The political world is under high pressure of the corporate world, employers’ associations as well as international observers to come with structural answers to economic and societal challenges.

 

2   Federal Parliament & Government

 The result of the federal elections can be summarized as follows:

  •  At the Flemish side, a major victory of Flemish nationalist party N-VA, further strengthening its position as the largest Flemish party
  • The outgoing coalition of traditional parties (socialists, christian democrats and liberals) keeps its majority with the same total number of seats
    • Against expectations, the respective coalition partners remain relatively stable; the repartition of seats is slightly more balanced between the respective political families
    • The outgoing coalition partners now have one seat extra at Flemish side and one seat less at French speaking side.  As a result, the three traditional parties have now a majority at Flemish side, which was not the case under the outgoing government and which was often subject of criticism from opposition parties N-VA and Vlaams Belang (both Flemish Nationalists).
  • Mixed picture for respective ecologist parties
  • Extreme right-wing Flemish nationalists of Vlaams Belang collapse.  Given the fact that Vlaams Belang was always excluded from power, their seats now become ‘available’ for other parties, which translates in a larger number of potential coalitions.

Visually, the position and relative weight of the respective political parties could be represented as follows: 

Poistion and relative weight of Belgian political parties

What are the main parameters to form a coalition at federal level?

  •  A coalition obviously requires a majority (total number of seats = 150).
  • Strictly speaking, no majority is required within the Flemish (87 seats) or French speaking (63 seats) sub-group, but this is politically highly sensitive.
  • Coalitions do not have to be ‘symmetric’ (meaning same political parties at Flemish and French speaking side), but most political parties prefer symmetric coalitions for obvious reasons.
  • Political ‘market leadership’ does not automatically translate into ‘coalition leadership’ or even ‘coalition membership’.  Respective positions can be defined in terms of individual political parties or in terms of ‘political families’ (sum of ideologically connected counterparts at Flemish and French speaking side).
  • Strictly speaking, the formation of a federal coalition is not linked to the regional coalitions, but in political reality, everything is interconnected and will be subject of one ‘package deal’.

Following chart gives a visual overview of the respective number of seats, grouped per political family (Flemish parties at top side, French speaking parties at bottom side):

 

overview seats per political family

In terms of potential federal coalitions, quite some scenarios are possible from a mathematical point of view.  Taking into account political feasibility, a repetition of the current ‘tripartite’ coalition is not unlikely:

  • An asymmetric coalition under the leadership of the respective political ‘market leaders’ (N-VA in Flanders, PS in French speaking Belgium) seems logical, but is politically highly unlikely.  The different programmes and the strained relationship between these political parties seem to make any collaboration utterly difficult, even impossible.
  • A coalition under the leadership of French speaking ‘market leader’ PS almost automatically translates in a ‘tripartite’ coalition.  Other ‘logical’ combinations, involving the ecologist parties for example, do not reach a balanced majority.
  • A coalition under the leadership of Flemish ‘market leader’ N-VA could consist of N-VA, liberals and christian democrats (93/150 seats).  However, this would mean that the French speaking side remains highly underrepresented (MR + cdH = 28/63 seats)
  • Continued ‘tripartite’ coalition (97/150 seats) of christian democrats, socialists and liberals remains possible and would be even stronger (given the Flemish majority, which was not the case before) and more balanced.

 

3   Flemish Parliament & Government

 The result of the vote is fairly similar to the federal results:

  •  Flemish nationalist party N-VA more than doubles its number of seats compared with the last regional elections of 2009 and is consequently the largest and dominant group in Flemish Parliament.  N-VA has now up to one third of the total number of seats (43/124).
  • The traditional parties (christian democrats of CD&V, socialists of sp.a and liberals of Open Vld) slightly decrease but are less impacted than expected.
  • Major loss for the extreme right-wing Flemish nationalists of Vlaams Belang
  • The right-wing libertarian party LDD (Lijst Dedecker) is totally wiped off the map and loses all of its eight seats
  • The ecologist party Groen wins three seats

Flemish parliament

In terms of coalitions:

  •  Mathematically as well as politically, a coalition between the nationalist N-VA and the christian democrats of CD&V seems the most plausible
  • This right-wing coalition could be further strengthened by adding the liberals of Open VLD
  • But we expect that the coalition building will be strongly influenced by the federal coalition negotiations.  In that perspective, different other scenarios are possible, such as a tripartite government consisting of the three traditional parties

 

4   Walloon Parliament & Government

The result of the elections in the Walloon region can be summarized as follows:

  • The outgoing coalition in the Walloon region was a so-called ‘olive tree coalition’ made up of socialists (PS), christian democrats (cdH) and ecologists (Ecolo)
    • PS managed to keep a status quo and retains its leading position in the Walloon parliament
    • The losses of cdH are limited
    • The third coalition partner Ecolo, however, faces a steep decline
  • The gap between left and right becomes smaller as the liberals (MR), who were not part of the outgoing coalition, gain extra seats
  • The Marxist party (PTB) managed to exceed the minimum threshold of 5 percent and will therefore be represented in the regional parliament

 Walloon parliament

Coalition negotiations have already been started up:

  • PS and cdH are said to have entered into discussions to team up at regional level and jointly look for a third coalition partner
  • Given the major defeat of Ecolo, they are probably looking into a coalition with MR, thus forming a so-called ‘tripartite’

The German-speaking community (less than 77 000 people) could also vote for its own parliament.

5   Brussels Parliament & Government

The result of the elections in the Brussels region can be summarized as follows:

  • At the French speaking side of the Brussels Parliament, the socialist party (PS) obtained the leading position, thus preceding the liberal party (MR) with a small difference.
  • The French speaking nationalist party (FDF), which quite recently split off from the MR, became the third political force in the capital, before the christian democrats (cdH) and the ecologists (Ecolo) which both lose seats.
  • The liberal Open VLD is the leading Flemish party in Brussels; the Flemish nationalist party (N-VA) is only fourth position.

 

Any coalition government in Brussels requires a majority in both language groups but various coalitions are possible:

  •  We can expect PS to keep the leadership of the Brussels Government.
  • Taking into account the major loss of Ecolo, it is very unlikely that the current coalition (PS, cdH, CD&V, Ecolo, Open Vld, Groen) would be reiterated.
  • FDF became the third political force in the capital, before cdH and Ecolo, and therefore may aspire to be part of the new government; PS indeed has an interest in ensuring the survival of FDF as a bulwark against the liberals; the program of the FDF is relatively close the one of its former partner MR and not incompatible with the one of the PS in Brussels.
  • If both the Federal and the Walloon government would become a classical ‘tripartite’ with socialists, liberals and christian democrats, an identical coalition at regional level is quite likely.

                                                                         

6   Next steps: political analysis

Once the outcome of the elections is known and has been analysed, a new political game starts: building coalitions, negotiating coalition agreements and composing governments.

At federal level, there is a formal role for the King who consults with the respective political parties and who appoints one or more ‘informateurs’ (senior politicians exploring potential coalitions and preparing the grounds for more formal negotiations) and a ‘formateur’ (in charge of pulling together a coalition agreement and government; often the future Prime Minister).  At regional level, there is no official King or kingmaker.  The respective parties negotiate amongst each other, the first initiative being taken by the winner of the elections.

In reality, everything is interconnected and the real game will be played by the presidents (or other leaders) of the respective political parties: they determine whom they want to team up with, what their priorities are, which concessions they are prepared to make, etc.

We expect that the regional and federal negotiations will be linked to each other.  Only Flemish nationalist party N-VA has pleaded to work in a different way: first build a coalition at Flemish level, and consequently enter into federal negotiations with this Flemish coalition.  Generally speaking, it looks like N-VA finds itself in a relatively isolated position.  Participation in (and leadership of) the Flemish government is conceivable; but at a federal level, this seems to be much less obvious.  Given the interaction between the regional and federal government negotiations, even participation in a Flemish coalition is not a ‘given’ for N-VA.

Although the French speaking parties have been very vocal during the pre-election period about their reluctance – and even refusal – to govern with N-VA, they would agree to meet their president in case the latter would be designated ‘informateur’ by the King (i.e., responsible to assess the various possibilities to form a new government).  Many observers see this as an intermediary step to demonstrate that N-VA is not capable to form a federal coalition.

Looking at all parameters (size of political parties AND of political families), content of programmes, trust and mistrust between key players, we expect the Flemish christian democrats to play a key role in the government formation: they are the second largest party in Flanders, are led by outgoing Flemish Prime Minister Kris Peeters, and are acceptable for other political parties.  The paradox of the political landscape which resulted from the elections is that CD&V is less inescapable than N-VA is.By forming a coalition without N-VA, CD&V would be able to keep the position of Flemish Minister President…  At French speaking side, this scenario could allow the French speaking socialists to keep their leadership role at regional, and potentially also federal, level… without guarantee, however, that Elio Di Rupo will remain Prime Minister.


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