As of yesterday Belgium set a new record: it has gone for the longest time in its history without forming a government. It has been 150 days since the elections in June, and still no government in sight, with the Flemish and Wallonian legislators from the major parties unable to compromise and form a coalition.
The Belgian political icepack, which has been frozen in place for decades, seems to be shifting at last. Today’s vote to reconfigure several electoral districts in the Brussels metropolitan area shows that the Flemings are finally willing to use their political muscle.
This morning a Flemish contact sent us this message about the situation:
Vlaams Belang just announced that the Parliamentary Commission for Internal Affairs has voted to split the electoral constituency of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde according to the Belgian constitution. The previous arrangement acted as an electoral wedge for the Walloons, and was finally rejected by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional.
As Paul Belien wrote in Brussels Journal on 23 August: “[Brussels], which is historically Dutch, is a bilingual enclave surrounded by the Halle-Vilvoorde district of the Flemish province of Brabant. At present Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV) is one large, single electoral constituency. Flanders wants to assume full autonomy over Halle and Vilvoorde, and demands that these two Flemish towns and the surrounding Flemish villages are split off from bilingual Brussels. This is […] being vetoed by the Walloon parties, although four years ago the Constitutional Court of Belgium, with 50% French-speaking judges, ruled that the present situation is unconstitutional and that BHV should be split by July 2007.”
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Following the last elections this reform has been one of the most pressing demands of the Flemish representatives during the process of forming a new Federal Government; the Walloon representatives have tried to offset this demand by insisting on “compensations” before allowing the vote. Amazingly enough, and after 150 days of wrangling, the Flemish representatives have finally broken with their (in)famous tradition of trading away huge concessions for token “victories” by simply using their numeric majority to vote the measure. VB reports that when it became clear around 14:30 local time that the vote would proceed, The Walloon representatives left the proceedings, while only one Flemish party (Groen!) did not vote for the measure. The Walloon parties are now meting separately to determine how to proceed.
While to American eyes this may appear to be a simple gerrymandering issue, in the context of the political power structure in Belgium this is a momentous development because the Flemish parliamentary majority has never used its numerical power this way. The next hurdle is the negotiation over further gvernment rform (from the Flemish perspective, transferring more Federal responsibilities to the regional governments). It’s quite possible that today was the first step towards eventual Flemish independence.