Dispute over electoral district at root of Belgian stalemate

Belgian lawyer and political scientist Vincent Défraiteur (right) explains Belgian politics to visitors and staff at the Forum of Federations.

Vincent Defraiteur, one of the Forum of Federation’s Young Professionals, gave a lunch-and-learn presentation on May 28, 2008 titled BHV – Three Letters for a Belgian Nightmare. Mr. Defraiteur, a political scientist and lawyer for the Belgian legal firm JDDV Advocaten in Brussels, explained that the huge gains made by Flemish confederalists and secessionists in the Belgian general elections of June 2007 were the result of deep frustrations about the political stalemate concerning the electoral district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV).

In a 2003 ruling, the country’s Constitutional Court ordered the Belgian government to abolish the electoral district, which currently allows that district’s voters to choose their senators and EU representatives from either a French-speaking list or a Dutch-speaking list, even though the district is in Dutch-speaking Flanders. Mr. Defraiteur explained that the Constitutional Court ruled this discriminatory and called on the government to rectify the situation by July 2007 at the latest, either by allowing Flemings to stand for election in Wallonia, or by no longer allowing Walloons to do so in Flanders.
Belgium’s previous Liberal-Socialist government coalition led by Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt had been unable to set things straight. The Walloon ministers vetoed any change to the status quo. This resulted in severe losses for the Liberal and the Socialist parties in Flanders in the 10 June elections.
The inability of Ives Leterme, the previous Flemish minister-president and winner of the elections, to form a government for over 10 months led to Belgium’s deepest political crisis ever. Flemish politicians who agree to join a government which does not abolish the BHV riding know that they are committing political suicide in view of the next regional elections in 2009, whilst Walloon politicians fear the same will happen to them if they agree to abolish BHV. Meanwhile, as long as no solution is found, new general elections at the national (federal) level will be viewed as unconstitutional. Technically this situation can continue until 2011 when new general elections are due, but the general impression is that a country cannot function for four years without a government.

So, as Mr. Defraiteur pointed out, the discussions about the electoral district lie at the heart of the debate about the future of Belgian federalism. It symbolizes how entrenched the two Flemish and the Walloon communities have become.

Mr. Defraiteur spoke at the Forum’s offices in Ottawa.

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