July 19, 2024

For a relatively small country of 11.5 million in northern Europe, Belgium punches above its weight in political relevance and drama, all of which is set to play out on June 9 when Belgians head to the polls.

Brussels, the capital, is the home of the European Union institutions and NATO. The country’s complex identity has long made it a subject of fascination and puzzlement. It is a federation split to a great degree between two communities, the Dutch-speaking Flemish population and the Francophone Walloons, as well as a very small German-speaking minority.

In its historical efforts to accommodate divisions between those communities while keeping the country together, Belgium has created a convoluted governance structure affectionately called “administrative lasagna” — and it’s an accurate depiction of layers upon layers of bureaucracy at work.

On June 9, Belgians will head to the polls to elect not only their representatives in the European Parliament, like hundreds of millions of other people across the European Union, but also their officials for the federal and regional layers of that government lasagna.

With political extremes riding high in the polls, forging a national government is looking thornier than ever in the country that once took almost 18 months after an election to form a governing coalition, setting a world record.

The election results could also have far-reaching implications for the country’s structure. Opinion polls showing the far-right Flemish separatist party Vlaams Belang, or “Flemish Interest,” likely to become the country’s largest, with more than twice as much support as it had in the last parliamentary election, in 2019. That would put greater Flemish autonomy, or even independence, firmly back on the political agenda.

A longstanding vow by all other parties never to govern with Vlaams Belang makes it unlikely the anti-immigrant party will come to power at a national level. But its precipitous rise could give more moderate groups leverage to drastically change how national and regional powers are divided.

While separatist forces in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern region of Belgium, dream of breaking away entirely, more realistically, after June 9 the country’s north and south may start negotiating far-reaching changes that stop short of actually splitting up the country.

Still, this is an extraordinary situation in the European Union, where secessionist movements have largely been contained.

This month, the current government gave the next one carte blanche to adapt the Constitution to make an overhaul of its federal system possible. Any changes to the Constitution after the elections would still have to be approved by a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

Voting in Belgium is complex because of how the push for more regional autonomy has shaped the country. As a federal state, Belgium divides powers between a national or federal government and five regional or community governments. Depending on where in the country they vote, Belgians will be handed three or four different ballots on June 9.

Regional divisions also affect the way European Union votes will be cast that day. Belgium is the only country to divide its allotted seats in the European Parliament between Dutch, French and German-speaking electoral colleges, which can fill 13, eight and one seat, respectively. For the first time, 16- and 17-year-old Belgians will also be able to vote in the European elections, a landmark victory in the global movement to lower the voting age.

Showing up to vote is compulsory in Belgium. Those who fail to do so risk a fine of up to 80 euros, or $87, although it is rarely imposed. Voter turnout in the 2019 election was around 88 percent, among the highest rates in the world.

Polls show Vlaams Belang winning about the most seats in the 150-seat national Parliament, to become the largest party, with the three other parties following: the far-left Workers’ Party of Belgium, the Flemish nationalist New Flemish Alliance and the Walloon Socialist Party.

Belgium has long struggled to form a national government that unites regional forces, and the rise of both the far right and the far left is likely to put more moderate parties in an even tougher spot.

As a whole, the centrist parties that make up Prime Minister Alexander De Croo’s current government have lost ground and are projected to fall just short of a majority. Still, if other parties can be convinced to join in their coalition, forming a government without the far left and far right appears possible. But it will be a tall order to keep it together.

Polls will close at 4 p.m. local time on June 9, and preliminary results will be published on a rolling basis on the country’s French- and Dutch-speaking public broadcasters. A final vote count is normally announced within 24 hours of the polls closing.

#Belgiums #Election

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