Belgium – record holder for longest time without a government

On Thursday the 1st of October Belgium’s new government was sworn in. The ceremony and the official presentation of the government were a bit different than usual because of the pandemic, but what was much more unusual about this new government is how long it took to form it; 494 days since the elections in May 2019. Ever since December 2018, when the previous Belgian government fell, the country has been without a democratically elected majority government. What is even weirder is that this is not even the longest time that the country has been without a government, after the elections in 2010 it took 541 days to form a new government. But why did this formation process take so long? Why is Belgium the world record holder for the longest time without a government? And how does a country function without a government for one and a half years?

Why does forming a new government take so long in Belgium?

The reason that the formation of a new government is often a lengthy process in Belgium is the fact that the citizens of this small country are deeply divided in many ways. Belgium has three official languages and the country is split along these lines, but it also has several bilingual zones, different and distinct local governance regions, and the general political divide of left and right leaning voters. The country’s complicated political system was set up in an attempt to placate the regional and linguistic differences that have existed practically since the formation of the country.

Map of Belgium showing the provinces and language regions. Yellow: Flanders (Dutch speaking), red (French speaking) & blue (German speaking): Wallonia, orange: Brussels-Capital region (bilingual). (Map: Wikimedia Commons)

A particularly unique part of Belgium’s political system is that there are no federal parties at all, voters in the different linguistic regions are only able to vote for parties that represent their community. This means that the winning party that has the most votes, and thus gets the most seats in the house of parliament after the election, was not even on the ballot in a large part of the country. So a large part of the country will always be dissatisfied with the winner because they could not vote for or against them. Additionally, because the largest party still has to form a coalition with other parties to get a majority in parliament, they always have to make concessions which also leaves their voters feeling dissatisfied. 

The results of the last elections in May 2019 pushed the already split system to its limits; in Flanders (the Dutch speaking region in the north) people voted overwhelmingly for rightwing parties, while in Wallonia (the southern and majority French speaking region of Wallonia) people mainly voted left. The far-right party Vlaams Belang, which was one of the big winners in Flanders and who appealed to a lot of Flemish voters that feel disenfranchised from the federal government, is so extreme that no parties really wanted to cooperate with them. The far-left winner in Wallonia PTB had the same issue, their extreme communist views made them an unacceptable partner for most other parties. Because these two parties could not take part in any coalition this effectively left only smaller parties and ‘losers’ of the election to form a new government. They lacked a strong mandate and were all afraid of compromising. In the end no less than seven parties managed to make the appropriate compromises and form a new government, which was presented on the 1st of October.  

How does the country function without a government?

In the period in between the fall of the last government in 2018 and the first day of the new government this October Belgians lived their normal lives, the trains still went and police officers were still working. Unlike what you may expect after watching some movies, anarchy did not reign and there was no purge. In fact a lot of Belgian people seemed to feel that not having a government is much the same as having a government and they were quite apathetic towards the long negotiations. In a Dutch news article Belgian professor and political scientist Carl Devos calls this the ‘who gives a shit-feeling’. 

This feeling can be explained by the fact that this situation is so annoyingly familiar, and also because the local governments take care of so many things in the country. Additionally, there is also always a caretaker government with ministers that take care of the day to day business, which could explain why people do not feel like they are missing a government. 

However, in the long run it is extremely problematic for a country to be without a government. Professor Devos explains that big political decisions about the future of the country, and necessary reforms to the country’s tax and retirement systems cannot be taken without one. And when the corona pandemic hit the country earlier this year drastic measures also needed to be taken. The interim Prime Minister, Sophie Wilmes, got a special mandate from ten parties in parliament to provide funding to public health services and to address the economic impact of the crisis.

Interim Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Although the caretaker government quickly used its new powers to try to curb the spread of the virus, the country’s response to the pandemic was still hampered by its political structure. Miscommunication and confusion over the role of the state and the regional governments may be a reason for the very high numbers of infection and deaths that Belgium has seen. 

What about this new government?

The new government, as said before, consists of seven parties from across a wide range of the political spectrum; there are Flemish and French socialst parties, liberals, greens, and the Flemisch Christian democrats party. The government is nicknamed the ‘Vivaldi coalition’ which refers to the different party ‘colours’ that correspond with the colours of the four seasons.

The leader of this government, and thus Belgium’s new Prime Minister, is Alexander de Croo who is the leader of the Flemish Open Vld. It was slightly surprising that de Croo was chosen as the new PM since his party is one of the smaller parties in the coalition, and in parliament at large his party is just the 7th biggest. Most people agree that the decision to make de Croo the new PM was mostly a strategic way to satisfy the Flemish. Ever since 2011 the Belgium PM has always been a French speaker, something that greatly annoys Flemish voters. In order to appease those voters, and because the new government does not have a majority among Flemish lawmakers, picking a Fleming was obviously the most strategic

Belgium’s new Prime Minister Alexander de Croo (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Regardless of the reason he was chosen as the new PM, the hope is that de Croo is ready for the big tasks ahead of him. His government takes office amidst the ongoing pandemic and will have to deal with the economic and social impacts of that crisis. In the meantime Belgium’s budgetary deficit continues to increase, decisions will have to be made about how to make the economy more sustainable, and the country’s political management system should be reformed. While de Croo tries to do all this, arguably his most important, and most difficult, task will be to try to restore some of the Belgian people’s confidence in politics and to gain the favour of Flemish voters in particular.  

De Croo seems aware of this looming task, saying in a speech last week “We have to cooperate more and mainly respect each other and each other’s opinions more.” [this quote was translated from Dutch by the author]. Perhaps de Croo is trying to set a good example of respect and inclusivity with the cabinet that he put together, because he appointed more female than male ministers, a first in Belgian history. One of the new ministers, de Sutter of the Flemish Green Party, is a well known trans woman who has previously sat in the European Parliament. The whole cabinet is also much younger than the average government and also includes several people with a migration background.

Maybe strength in diversity is the way to ensure that this government succeeds in successfully steering Belgium out of the political, financial, and health crisis that the country is in? And most importantly, this government might be able to steer clear of a government crisis that would lead to early elections and the start of another, undoubtedly long, formation process! 

Kerime van Opijnen