By Bjarn Eck (Université Libre de Bruxelles)

Alongside the elections for the European Parliament, Belgium held federal and regional elections on the 9th of June for the first time in five years. The country shifted to the right, but the results were less of an extremist earthquake than many expected. In the northern Dutch-speaking region of Flanders, the conservative-nationalist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) secured its place as largest party with 23.9 percent of the Flemish vote, closely followed by the populist radical right Vlaams Belang (VB) with 22.7 percent. In Wallonia, the southern French-speaking region, the liberal centre-right Reformist Movement (MR) won the elections with 29.6 percent of the Walloon vote. The Socialist Party (PS), which has governed the region for decades, lost its place as largest party and fell second with 23.2 percent. The centrist Les Engagés gained almost 10 percentage points and ended third with 20.7 percent of the Walloon vote.

Belgian politics: a very short introduction
In total, Belgium elected 7 parliaments at different levels on Sunday. The country consists of three regions that each have their own parliament. The northern part of Flanders, which is Dutch-speaking, elected a Flemish Parliament; the southern French-speaking Wallonia casted their votes for a Walloon Parliament; and the capital-region of Brussels, which is largely French-speaking but harbours a sizeable Dutch minority, elected a Brussels Parliament. Whereas the Flemish and Walloon Parliaments only consist of parties of the respective languages, the Brussels Parliament consists of parties from both sides of the linguistic divide. Besides these three regional parliaments, the whole country voted to find representation at the federal level for the Chamber of Representatives. For this highest level, most parties only compete in their own language region, with the radical left PTB-PVDA as sole exception. Still, parties of the same political family – such as the liberals, social democrats, and Christian democrats – generally work together.
To make things more complicated, the country also consists of three language communities: the Flemish Community (Dutch) in Flanders and Brussels, the French Community in Wallonia and Brussels, and a tiny German community in East-Wallonia. This results in two more parliaments: one for the French-speaking Community (which is filled with the members of the newly-elected Walloon Parliament together with the French-speaking members of the Brussels Parliament) and one for the German-speaking Community (which has its own, separate, vote). In Flanders, the Flemish parliament is in charge of both regional and community matters, as these two geographical regions overlap. On top of that, the country also elected its members for the European Parliament.
For the elections, the eyes are mostly on the federal parliament as well as the three regional parliaments of Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels. The federal parliament consists of 150 members, 88 Dutch-speaking and 62 French-speaking (reflecting the population differences). Its government is in charge of public finances, the judicial system, social security, foreign affairs, and considerable parts of public health and home affairs. On top of that, it delivers the national Prime Minister. The competences of the regions, on the other hand, are mostly related to issues closely connected to their level: employment, agriculture, housing, energy, and transport. Through several state reforms, they have become more autonomous over time. Each regional government has its own Minister-President.
In addition to the language differences, the regions of Flanders and Wallonia differ in their political landscapes. Flanders usually votes and is governed by the (center-)right. The populist-radical right VB is one of the oldest of its kind in Europe – its predecessor Vlaams Blok entered parliament already in 1991. Wallonia is rather left-wing, and the socialist PS has been part of most government coalitions for decades. It is also one of the few places in Europe where a populist radical right party has been unable to gain sizeable seat shares, not least because other parties and the media refuse to give such newcomers any attention. These differences are part of the main causes of the durable coalition formations at the federal level, which needs to consists of parties of both regions. In addition, the sizeable Flemish nationalist parties N-VA and VB advocate for (increased) Flemish independence, sentiments that are less present among Walloon parties – which further complicates coalition agreements.

The run-up to the campaign
The Belgian political landscape witnessed a major shift after the last multi-level elections in 2019, with especially radical parties performing well. Both the radical right VB and the radical left PTB-PVDA increased their seat share, while centre parties lost severely. This complicated the federal coalition formation. 492 days after the elections, in October 2020, COVID-19 finally forced parties into a marriage of convenience to govern the country under crisis. Multiple attempts to form a federal government had failed by then. The coalition consisted of the liberals (MR and Open Vld), greens (Ecolo and Groen), and socialists (PS and Vooruit), and was joined by the Flemish Christian-democrats of CD&V. This Vivaldi-coalition – in reference to the four seasons – was headed by Alexander De Croo (Open Vld). It excluded the largest Flemish party N-VA and did not consist of a Flemish majority, something which would repeatedly be called out as a disgrace by N-VA-leader Bart De Wever in the following years.
At the regional level, the three governments of Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels were formed within four months. In Flanders, the N-VA formed a coalition with Open Vld and CD&V at the end of September 2019, headed by N-VA-politician Jan Jambon. Elio Di Rupo, former Prime Minister of Belgium, became Minister-President in Wallonia, leading a coalition that consisted of his own PS party, Ecolo, and MR. The Brussels-Capital region witnessed a quick coalition formation between the joint lists of PS-Vooruit and Ecolo-Groen, Open Vld, and DéFI (regionalists).

The election campaign
In the run-up to the elections, the radical-right VB dominated the news because it was heading the polls and seemed to dethrone the N-VA as largest party in Flanders. Their surge in the polls brought an important question to the campaign: will the cordon sanitaire be broken after the elections? When VB’s predecessor Vlaams Blok entered parliament in 1991, all other Flemish parties signed an agreement (the cordon sanitaire) to exclude any cooperation in government with the party because of its radical views. Importantly, the conservative-nationalist N-VA was only established at a later stage, and never signed the agreement. Though N-VA was part of several coalitions since its inception and never governed with VB, during the campaign the party was often asked to provide clarity on its stance toward the cordon – not least because both parties have ideological overlap, for example toward an autonomous Flanders and migration.
The N-VA, at first, remained ambiguous about governing with VB. Its leader Bart De Wever tried to slow down VB’s campaign by shifting the campaign focus from migration to the economy and state finances. The N-VA party leader repeatedly attacked the incumbent Vivaldi government on creating large deficits in the federal budget over the years, and criticized its elevated spending on social security – always emphasizing the larger contribution of Flemish tax payers to the budget and the worse economic figures in Wallonia, for example regarding unemployment. In addition, he clearly presented himself as the next Prime Minister in a federal coalition that should work on a state reform with more competences for the regions. While VB also strongly advocated Flemish independence in the campaign, its leader Tom Van Grieken ruled out federal government participation. Instead, he preferred to remain Vivaldi as caretaker government for five years, while Flanders and Wallonia would meanwhile negotiate a separation. If that would not have been finished successfully after five years, Flanders would unilaterally declare independence.
De Wever emphasized the illusion and dramatic consequences of this idea, and excluded a government with VB several weeks before the elections. This was a key moment in the campaign and an attempt of De Wever to present himself as the future leader of a centre-right federal coalition. In addition to the illusory independence statements, Van Grieken had made it easier for N-VA to exclude VB as coalition partner in the last weeks of the campaign. The VB-leader had claimed that although a majority to reform was currently lacking, he clearly rejected several rights of the LGTBQI+-community. Another party prominent argued that abortion should only be allowed in extreme circumstances. Given that these rights have existed in Belgium for decades, they were by no means polarizing issues, and formed an easy target for other parties to attack VB in the final campaign weeks. If anything, VB gave De Wever the opportunity to present himself as the ‘reasonable alternative’.
Other Flemish parties had a difficult campaign. Most Vivaldi coalition parties were losing in the polls and were unable to regain the momentum. Alexander De Croo’s Open Vld (which also formed the Flemish government) and Groen were even getting close to the important 5 percent level, which is the minimum threshold for seats in the provincial constituencies. Whereas Open Vld struggled to find an identity throughout the campaign, Groen suffered from the lack of attention to climate issues. The main Vivaldi-exception was Vooruit, which kept a clear socio-economic profile during the campaign, shifted to the right on migration, and showed to be willing to govern after the elections in a centre-right government; if necessary, even without their Walloon sister-party PS. This was a strategic move, given the difficulties between PS-leader Paul Magnette and N-VA-leader Bart De Wever, and the latter’s likelihood to become part of the government.
In Wallonia, the campaign was largely dominated by socio-economic issues. The PS was struggling in the polls mainly due to the rise of the radical left PTB-PVDA, which emphasized increasing economic inequality instigated by the PS-led governments over the past decades. This forced the PS to move to the left. At the same time, the liberal MR – also part of the federal and Walloon governments – moved to the right. Its leader Georges-Louis Bouchez held an economically right-wing campaign,. He mostly stressed the Walloon unemployment rates, which he wanted to tackle by cutting unemployment benefits and reducing taxes for the employed. In doing so, he also directly confronted coalition partner PS. These ideological shifts of PS and MR created space in the centre, which made the centrists Les Engagés (formerly Christian-democratic cdH) unexpectedly surge in the polls. Since the party did not participate in any of the incumbent governments, it could present itself as a viable alternative for centrist voters hoping for a change.

The results: toward centre-right governments?
A landslide victory of VB did not take place. Against all odds, N-VA lost some votes but again received the highest vote share in Flanders – a result that the party had not expected, as was clearly visible on election night. VB ended second in terms of vote share, which increased its seat share both in the Chamber (20 vs. 24 of N-VA) as well as in the Flemish Parliament (both 31). Still, the party could not suppress disappointment with the results in light of the raised expectations in the run-up to the elections – with some polls reporting almost 30 percent of the votes. In the French-speaking elections, MR booked a large victory and has become the largest party in both Wallonia and Brussels. PS lost, but perhaps less votes than expected, and it is still the second-largest party in Wallonia as well as Brussels. Behind these largest parties, mainly Vooruit in Flanders and Les Engagés in Wallonia performed well, while the radical-left PTB-PVDA also generally won votes. Both green parties Ecolo and Groen took a big hit and clearly lost the elections. Also Open Vld, the party of incumbent Minister-President Alexander De Croo lost a large share of its votes. Important to mention as well is that, despite Vooruit’s win, the traditional parties in Flanders (socialists, liberals, and Christian-democrats) scored a historically low combined result.
These results could, unexpectedly, pave the way for rather quick government formations – although caveats must be mentioned. In Flanders, the N-VA will inevitably become part of the government as other parties – upholding the cordon sanitaire toward VB – cannot form a majority without it. While VB-leader Tom Van Grieken called upon N-VA leader Bart De Wever to form a joint majority on election night (then projected to have a minimum majority of 63 out of 124 seats), this combination lost a seat in the final projection of the results. This seems to have made it easier for the N-VA to form a government without VB, regardless of whether it would like to. A likely coalition would be between N-VA, CD&V, and Vooruit, which has a majority of seats and consists of parties that won the election (N-VA and Vooruit) or remained stable (CD&V). Other combinations are less likely. The Open Vld has indicated to become an opposition party at all levels, and it is unlikely that N-VA would reach agreements with leftist parties like Groen or PTB-PVDA.
In Wallonia and Brussels, MR will take the leading role as winner of the elections, as evidenced by statements of its leader Georges-Louis Bouchez. In Wallonia, a clear centre-right option is available with the centrists of Les Engagés. Both parties won the elections and have a comfortable majority in the Walloon Parliament with 43 out of 75 seats. In Brussels, the puzzle is more challenging – not least because it consists of both Dutch-speaking and French-speaking parties that both need to be part of the government. The PS, which has been part of the government in Brussels since 1989, seems a likely option as it remains the second-largest party in there.

The aftermath
Finally, most focus will be placed upon the federal government formation. Sunday evening, N-VA leader Bart De Wever took the lead by saying that Flanders “has clearly chosen for prosperity, and – more than ever – autonomy”, claiming that he is still available as candidate for Prime Minister. De Wever has multiple times during the campaign claimed that he is willing to quickly form a government to tackle the budget deficits, and that his desperately-desired state reforms can be negotiated at a later stage during the coalition. As such, a so-called Arizona-coalition (named after the colours of all participating parties) seems the most straightforward option right now. This includes the Dutch-speaking N-VA, CD&V, and Vooruit and the French-speaking MR and Les Engagés. Not only does this coalition have a majority of 82 (out of 150) seats, it also has the advantage that the governing parties at the federal level are identical to the ones in both regions of Flanders and Wallonia – provided those regional coalitions would indeed be formed accordingly. It would have a rather centre-right signature, with Vooruit as sole centre-left party. This might, directly, be one of the difficulties for its creation.
Moreover, considering the Belgian history of coalition formations, it is not unlikely to become more complicated than described above. While the federal Arizona-option seems feasible, it might also be a weakness that there appears to be no viable alternative coalition at the federal level at this moment. It is also important to mention that the country will hold local elections in October, of which the campaign has basically started today. Particularly N-VA might be hindered by this: if it maintains the cordon sanitaire by excluding VB from the governments, VB-leader Tom Van Grieken will not miss a chance to emphasize this during the campaign.

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