Thursday

17th Oct 2019

Belgium votes in hybrid EU-national election

  • Climate change has helped boost the standing of Greens in Belgium (Photo: hans905)

Over eight million eligible Belgians are set to vote on Sunday (26 May) in an election that straddles regional, federal, and European polls.

Among the new hopefuls for its 21 seats in the European Parliament is Marc Botenga, a Walloon from the far left Workers' Party of Belgium (PTB).

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  • School-kid climate protests have gripped the country for months (Photo: Timo Heinonen)

It means the far-left group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left may finally have a Belgian among its ranks.

Botenga's possible election points to wider support for the Greens and the Socialists throughout the traditionally left-leaning Walloon region.

Support for the Green party also surged in Brussels following last October's local elections and made further gains in Wallonia and in Flanders.

The consensus ahead of Sunday's vote is that the Greens will fare well, boosted by the school-kid climate protests that have gripped the country for months.

They are expected to sweep Brussels and secure some 19 percent of the votes in Wallonia, up from around 8 percent in 2014. In Flanders, they are polling more than 10 percent.

Guy Verhofstadt, arguably Belgium's most famous politician, is also running in the European election. A staunch federalist and leader of the liberal group Alde, Verhofstadt is likely to return to the plenary chamber in July.

Aside from Verhofstadt, other notable Belgian European deputies seeking re-election are the Greens Philippe Lamberts and Bart Staes.

From the initial 21 seats in the European Parliament, 15 Belgian MEPs are hoping to return.

Byzantine politics

But the Sunday election also throws into sharp relief Belgium's complex language divides that help determine the composition of its six parliaments.

At the federal level, people will be voting for the chamber of representatives, one of the two chambers in the bicameral Federal Parliament of Belgium, composed of 150 seats. The other chamber is the Senate.

At the regional level, they will be sending representatives to the Flemish parliament, the parliament of Wallonia, the parliament of the German-speaking community, and the parliament of the Brussels-Capital region.

The method and division on how these votes unfold are largely determined by language and regions.

Belgium is divided into the three regions, the larger Dutch speaking Flanders in the north, the smaller French speaking Wallonia in the south, and a hybrid version of the two in Brussels-Captial region.

The regions are further divided into Flemish, French and German language communities.

The German speaking community in the east is tiny by comparison but still retains its own parliament. It is also the only one that directly elects people to the community parliament.

Michel losing grip

Broadly speaking, the language communities deal with issues linked to education and culture. The regions work on trade, infrastructure, and energy, while the federal level oversees foreign affairs, security and justice.

Policy aside, the separation among the regions and communities is stark.

A Belgian who speaks Flemish and lives in Flanders votes for a Flemish political party. The same is true in the French speaking Wallonia.

It means the composition of a federal government can be an arduous task ripe for conflict. The country went without a federal government for 541 days until a coalition was finally hammered out in late 2011.

Fears are mounting that a similar, although less lengthy, scenario may now unfold.

At stake is the future of Belgium's embattled prime minister Charles Michel, a 43-year old French-speaking liberal who has been overseeing a caretaker government since December.

A dispute over a United Nation's Global Migration Pact led to the December collapse. Michel signed it. His biggest coalition partner, the right-wing New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) opposed it.

Michel was forced to resign shortly afterwards, putting on hold big ticket issues like the 2019 federal budget.

He had up until December held onto a shaky government with the N-VA, along with the Reformist Movement (MR), the Christian Democratic and Flemish party (CD&V), and the Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats (Open VLD).

Together, they had held 83 out of 150 seats in the chamber. But with the N-VA gone, his government lost 31 seats and the majority.

As a French speaker hailing from Wallonia, Michel's appointment as prime minister was already an anomaly given that Belgium most often gives the post to the largest political party.

The N-VA is the biggest party and are projected to get up to 30 percent of the Flemish vote. Michel's MR is on the decline and his biggest challenger is the Flemish nationalist Jan Jambon, a former interior minister.

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