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Belgium : Need to subvert democracy

By Owei Lakemfa
BELGIUM is by contemporary standards, a blessed country. An international capital; it is the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the International Trade Unions Confederation (ITUC) and the European Union (EU). In fact, it is assuming the presidency of the EU on July 1. Historically, it was a colonial power with the Congo as its most prized possession.
But none of these reveals the fact that Belgium  is, internally, a myth; an illusion; a fictive realism. It is both a truth and a lie; a truthful lie. Internationally, Belgium is a member of the United Nations, but within the country’s borders, it does not really exist; the inhabitants see themselves mainly as either  Dutch-speaking Flemings whose  territory is not Belgium but Flanders, or as French-speaking Wallons.

This is a country that is not a country. In practice, Belgium has different educational systems, including curriculum taught in different languages. The language divide cuts through the local, regional and national levels. The newspapers and electronic media operate on the language  divide and the political parties are not national.

In fact, even when the parties have the same ideology, say socialist, they are divided along the linguistic lines as are the ecological parties.

Interestingly, the Belgians are united by the German language which is spoken by one per cent of the populace. and a national debt which is 80 per cent of their GDP. Perhaps the main place they co-exist is the capital, Brussels where the main language, French is spoken along with Dutch, the language of the majority. But this has not always been so.

French, spoken by the minority Wallon was the official language until 1920 when Dutch was legally recognised. The irony about Brussels however, is that while it is primarily French-speaking, it is surrounded by Dutch-speaking municipalities. So, if Belgium were to break up as the majority wants, the group that would retain Brussels might be impossible to determine without bloodshed.

When Belgium became independent in 1831 and was affirmed “an independent and perpetually neutral state” by the Treaty of London as agreed by France, Prussia, Russia, Britain and Austria, the minority Wallons had economic superiority, that was until the Second World War when the Flemings went on the ascendancy. Today the Wallons have twice the unemployment rate compared to the north. It was under these circumstances that the Belgians  this Sunday, June 13 went to the polls to exercise their democratic rights.

Within current world trends, liberal democracy is the best form of government. That is what Abraham Lincoln characterised as the government of the people, by the people, for the people.

But the reality in Belgium is that democracy is not intended to be the government of the people because the people do not want a united government; in fact, most, on the long run, want their government  and country dead and replaced by two new ones roughly along the language divide.

So with this week’s elections, the country  perched on the ropes of self defeat. For many, the success was hinged on the irreversible move towards the death of old Belgium and the advent of a two-state solution representing the Flemings with 58 per cent of the population and Wallons with 31 per cent. It is a classical Greek tragedy;  a country destined for self- immolation.

The main political party, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) campaigned on the basis of an immediate switch from a federal system to a confederacy as a step towards eventual independence. On this basis, the Flemings want negotiations for a confederacy , devolution of powers and eventual independence.

On the other hand, the Wallons do not want such negotiations. With no meeting grounds, or rather, a dialogue of the deaf, there may be a stalemate as it happened in 2007 when six months after elections, the Belgians could not form a government!

In this week’s election results, the seven Flemish parties won 88 of the 150 seats in the Belgian Chamber of Representatives and the five Wallon parties won 62. In the 40 Senate seats, the Flemings won 25 and the Wallon the balance.

To understand the implications of these results, it is necessary to know that 6,527,367 of  the  Belgian population of 10.5million cast their votes. There was an 89.2 per cent voter turnout. The New Flemish Alliance and the Christian  Democratic And Flemish party contested the 2007 elections together, in this elections, they have a combined vote of 2,030,160 ; 44 seats in the 150 House, and 13 of the 40 Senates seats contested. This election is therefore a victory for those who want to consign Belgium to the grave yard of history.

It may be difficult to form a government, but the leader of the winning party, Bart De Wever is applying the brakes; aware that there might be no government in the foreseeable future without the Wallonia parties, he has offered the  post of Prime Minister to Elio Di Rupo, leader of the Socialist Party, the largest party in the Wallonia region. Even if this is a genuine offer, the government may be shaky as the coalition government would be composed of diametrically opposed parties.

If on the other hand, the winning party is outside the coalition, the new government may not last for long. Yet, there is pressure on Belgium to have a government in place by July 1 when the country takes over the EU presidency.

Otherwise, the EU’s presidency will be held by an interim government. This will be dangerous for an EU under serious economic and financial crisis occasioned by  the economic tragedy in Greece and debt crisis in a number of member states.

Another way out, which admittedly is short term, is for the dangerously divisive elections to be annulled on the basis of inconsistencies in electoral districts. This is a view advocated by the Constitutional Court President, Marc Bossuyt. This is a fascinating scenario; to subvert the democratic process in Belgium in order to save the country.


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