All to play for as Belgians go to the polls on ‘Super Sunday’

Europe Letter: Football is one of the few unifying forces in a country divided by language, culture and politics

On Tuesday evening, citizens across Belgium gathered around the TV to watch a pre-election debate between two of the country's top politicians, Paul Magnette and Bart De Wever.

But the real news event of the week was the announcement earlier that day of the 24-man squad who will represent the country at the World Cup in Brazil next month.

Football is one of the few unifying forces in a country divided by language, culture and politics. Belgium’s national team, which comprises players from both the Flemish-speaking and Francophone communities, is expected to perform strongly in next month’s tournament.

Before then, Belgium has to make it through a general election – not a routine task for a country that set the world record for time spent without an elected government. Belgium is still reeling from the political crisis of 2010-2011 that left it under the care of a care- taker government for 541 days.


The complex Belgian political system meant that no clear winner emerged from the 2010 general election, leaving the king to negotiate a coalition government over a 19-month period at the height of the financial crisis.

Political deadlock
Four years later the government faces the electorate once again, this time on the same day as local and European elections on Sunday, May 25th. With memories of the 2010- 2011 impasse still strong, a similar political deadlock is not expected this time, though the formation of a government could take months.

Belgium is still divided. The country of 10.7 million people encompasses Flanders, the Flemish-speaking northern half where 60 per cent of the population live; and their French-speaking southern neighbours in Walloniawith bilingual Brussels lying geographically and metaphorically in between.

The strong economic performance of Flanders, anchored around the great Flemish urban centres of Ghent, Antwerp and Bruges, has fed a wave of separatism over the past decade that has been channelled politically through the New Flemish Alliance (NVA).

The NVA, and its charismatic leader Bart De Wever, were the big winners in the 2010 election, and their demand for more devolution of powers to the regions was one of the main stumbling blocks to the formation of a government.

This time around, the NVA is playing a less nationalistic card, shifting the focus from constitutional ideals to political realities such as the economy and taxation. The NVA’s softening of emphasis towards “confederalism” rather than separatism also reflects the fact that power and politics are already significantly devolved.

Government in Belgium has become more decentralised since the last election, with responsibility for health, empl- oyment and family policies now residing at a regional rather than federal level. As well as federal and European elections on May 25th, voters will vote for their regional parliaments in the Walloon, Flemish and Brussels regions, the first time the three elections will be held on the same day.

The fact that citizens are only permitted to vote for parties and candidates in their own region in both the federal and regional elections increases the sense of separation within the country, even at the level of national government. Most commentators expect the shape of the new government to mirror that of the current administration, a socialist-led coalition headed by Walloon Elio Di Rupo, though a centre- right coalition including the NVA is also a possibility.

Economic challenges
Whatever the outcome, the Belgian public will be hoping the new federal government settles down to work quickly.

Apart from the country’s internal tensions, Belgium continues to face challenges economically.

In common with most countries across the euro zone, Belgium's economy suffered during the financial crisis, with its financial sector embroiled in a major banking crisis that saw the government step in to save the country's two biggest banks, Fortis and Dexia.

Belgium slipped into recession during the global downturn with growth returning in the second quarter of last year. It has also been subject to the European Commission’s excessive deficit procedure since 2009, with its high public debt-to-GDP ratio of 100 per cent a cause of concern.

While the economy is improving and GDP is expected to grow by 1.4 per cent this year, concerns remain about the competitiveness of the country's hugely important manufacturing sector, with the European Commission calling on Belgium to develop higher- value and innovative manufacturing capacities.

Nonetheless, as the sixth- largest economy in the euro zone, Belgium is still a significant player in the European landscape. As World Cup fever begins to take hold, Belgians will be hoping their country will prove its mettle in several ways this year.