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  Mon, Jul 21, 2008
Belgium's ongoing crisis
Last week, Belgium was plunged into political crisis once more when Prime Minister Yves Leterme offered to resign after only four months in power. Leterme assumed office last March - nine months after a general election was held in June 2007 - presiding over a coalition of Flemish and Francophone Christian Democrats and Liberals, as well as Francophone Socialists.

Belgium is linguistically divided between the Dutch-speaking Flemings in the north and the French-speaking Walloons in the south. Dutch speakers outnumber Francophones by a ratio of approximately 3-to-2, but the country was originally established in 1830 as an unitary polity with French as the sole official language; Dutch would not gain equal footing with French until 1898. Since 1970 a series of constitutional reforms have gradually transformed Belgium into a federal kingdom, and the two linguistic communities co-exist peacefully (along with a small German-speaking minority in the south-eastern part of the country), but relations are sometimes less than cordial, to put it mildly. Currently, Flemish parties want greater powers over taxation and social security to be devolved to the regions, although politicians in Wallonia - which is plagued by high unemployment - fear that would lead to a cut in subsidies from wealthier Flanders. In addition, both sides have been at odds over the rights of French speakers living in Flemish suburbs around Brussels, the officially bilingual capital of Belgium.

Leterme's government originally planned to focus mainly on immigration, tax cuts and pension benefits (although little was accomplished beyond balancing the budget), while largely avoiding the thorny issue of constitutional reform for further devolution of powers to the regions (other than for the transfer of minor powers over industrial policy and housing); instead, talks on increased devolution were to continue. However, the parties were unable to reach an agreement on the issue by Leterme's self-imposed deadline of July 15, triggering his resignation. While King Albert II subsequently rejected Leterme's offer to step down, the crisis is far from over, and the Belgian monarch appointed three senior political figures to find a way out of the impasse.

The ongoing crisis has led to renewed speculation about the possible break-up of Belgium into separate Flemish and Walloon nations, not unlike the peaceful, "velvet divorce" dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1992. In fact, opinion polls indicate nearly one out of every two Flemings support the establishment of a sovereign Flanders. However, it should be noted that in Czechoslovakia the Czechs and the Slovaks lived within clearly defined, contiguous geographical areas which became the country's successor states, whereas Belgium's overwhelmingly Francophone capital, Brussels, is surrounded by Flemish territory, and it's far from clear what would become of it if the country actually broke up.

Ingrid Robeyns' The ingredients of the Belgian cocktail, published on Crooked Timber, has an excellent, in-depth review of the issues affecting Belgium. In addition, Federal Elections in Belgium has an overview of Belgium's electoral system and party politics, along with Belgian parliamentary election results since 1995, which now include multi-member constituency-level maps for the 2003 and 2007 general elections.

posted by Manuel Álvarez-Rivera : 07/21/2008 09:47 | permanent link