Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ceci n'est pas un gouvernement

Efrutik posed a question in the comments for the last post, and it's one commonly asked by those outside Belgium. "WHY? Why are Belgians willing to live like this, in a limbo? "

It's a question worth the effort of investigating at this point, with neither hide nor hair of a government in sight, not even on the horizon after two hundred and fifty something days.

Demystifying the Belgian mind concerning politics will not be easy.  The realm of Belgian politics is murky, surreal, and tedious all at once.  Though I am not fully versed in the matter I've been here long enough to gain some insight into it.  Here, I roll up my sleeves and try to explain things in ungoverned Belgium, as I see them.  (And because I do not claim to be an expert at understanding all nuances of Belgian government, I do welcome corrections of factual errors on my part.)

Most non-Belgians who grew up in democratic environments are raised to believe that a vote is an expression of our will.  We can choose to express our political desires or not, by either going to the polls or not.  We accept that the politician with the most votes in a designated area is the winner and will directly assume his/her seat in the place where governing happens.  He/She will certainly not agree with all the other elected politicians who will also attend the governing place, but in order to resolve these disagreements they will make their points, and then they will all vote amongst themselves, with the winning solution being the one they will jointly pursue.  Of course this is a simplification of the process but generally we think of this as their job, and so do they.

It doesn't quite work that way in Belgium.

In almost all places there are traditional steps taken in the process of forming a new government after an election.  In most democratic countries the tradition is a 'formality' and is quickly done.  Unfortunately, in Belgium this formality has become distorted, blown wide open, magnified and dragged out.  What was once a formality is now an expansive grey-area playground in which politicians make their power-plays.

How did this happen?

After an election The King of the Belgians asks the head of one of the most popular parties to do a small formal job (the job of "informateur".)  This job is to confirm that all those elected are ready and willing to form a government.  (Makes sense that they should be, right?  After all, just prior to being elected they were busy preaching to the people about how ready and willing they were.)

In a normal world, newly elected politicians would say to the informateur "Yes!  I'm ready to get in there and argue about issues and to vote on their possible solutions!"  The informateur would go back to The King and give him the thumbs-up.

The King would then choose which of the head of one of the most-voted for parties he might like as his Prime-Minister.  His choice would be based on how he thinks the Belgian people will accept the new leader, which form of politics received the most votes regardless of region (in this case total votes for socialist parties outweighed total votes for more conservative parties in the country as a whole,) as well the King considers how well he feels the new Prime-Minister will do, whether he will be able to do his job both inside the country and when representing the country among other leaders.  BUT, before appointing someone Prime-Minister The King also gives them a job.  He makes this potential Prime Minister "the pre-formateur", and the job of the pre-formateur is to form the government.  (Again, it's pretty much a formality in a normal world where the politicians have all said "Yes!  We can't wait to get into that governing place so we can argue and vote!")

But - what happens when someone takes advantage of this process and says "No" to the informateur or the pre-formateur?  The formal process never really addresses what happens when someone who said they wanted the job before being elected then turns around after being elected and says "Even though I was elected, and I'm now being paid to do this job... I don't want to do my job as long as I have to work in the same building as that guy who has other beliefs than my own."  It's so easy to throw a wrench in the works when your system is built this way, with these formal steps.  Here the process stops dead if someone says "no".

I know.  This is the part where even if you were rolling your eyes at the idea of informateur and pre-formateur, you are now thinking "WHAT?"

And this is what's happened.  The pre-formateur has had no success in forming a government.  Talks between parties about the possibility of all going to the governing place and governing have fallen apart, again, and again, and again, and again.  The King has a "caretaker government" in place while all the nonsense drags on.  They are a skeleton crew comprised of members of the previous government, and their job is basically just to make sure the ship doesn't sink while everyone aboard is busy fighting.  Incidentally, the caretaker government has been doing a pretty good job, which begs the question "do we really NEED all those extra politicians to run things, then?"

Back to the scrum though.  There has been a lot of posturing, and use of the media to fan the flames.  Various politicians have all taken their turns playing the role of diva this time around, saying "No, I simply cannot sit in a building with THAT person so long as they believe THIS THING about THIS ISSUE.  I will not agree to form a government until THIS is RESOLVED."

I know.  You're thinking "WHAT?" again.  "Isn't the point of government to resolve differences of opinion by arguing in the governing place and then voting on them?"  Aaahhh, but you see... voting is democratic, which means for politicians with extreme views, it probably isn't a good way to get your way.  Playing outside the system as long as possible to the frustration and mounting embarassment of The King and the other willing politicians, not to mention the mounting worries of the world financial markets is probably a better way to get a few concessions you want, isn't it?  Eventually if you can wear people down by stomping your feet and refusing to form a government, people might just give in to a few of your demands to try and get the ball rolling again.

The King, who has no power to change this process, must now realize he's screwed.  He's in a position (officially) of being the man who guides the formal process, meanwhile he has no real control over it.  All eyes go back to him when a pre-formateur says "I can't form a government."  All he can do is try to encourage the formation of a government by telling the pre-formateur to "go back and try harder", or he can accept that government cannot be formed and agree to another election (in which case the vote could turn out similarly, and if the same politicians are elected the same problems forming a government would likely reoccur.)  Quite the headache for Albert II.  Catch 22.  Checkmate.

His highness, King of the Belgians stewed in the failure of the pre-formateur and delivered a new scheme to the Belgians to resolve the problem:  "The conciliateur".  The conciliateur was also appointed by the King, and was supposed to try and find a way to calm things down enough so that the elected officials will stop all the posturing, agree to form government, and GET TO WORK.

And it worked as well as you might think.  Meaning not really, because the problem of any politician being able to throw the formation of a government out the window by saying a simple "no" hasn't been solved.  In fact, the conciliateur recently went to The King and threw in the towel.

Somewhere along the line the King invented a "clarificateur" as well, apparently.  Yeah, I can relate there Albert II ... it gets confusing and a little clarity is always a good thing.

So - why do the people of Belgium accept what's going on right now?  Because Belgians are raised to follow tradition, and having grown up here they accept that in Belgium most governmental processes take a long time.  They accept the many layers of administration used to make things run.  Inefficiency and delay in administration are a way of life here, and unless the delays get really extreme, people don't get upset.  People are just starting to get upset now.  In the past 50 days, there have been protests in the streets of Brussels and other Belgian cities, and citizens are becoming more vocally and visually demonstrative about their desire for the politicians to stop bickering and start governing.

Why has it taken this long?  Well, all those layers of government act like a cushion.  The administrators (not politicians) have continued working at their snail-like pace, rubber-stamping the papers that drift across their desks.  The city-councils continue meeting.  The caretaker government is still in place, and life plods along feeling pretty normal, despite the lack of "A Belgian" government.  It makes it easier to accept the fact of no government while making it harder for Belgians to remember that the longer this continues, the less confidence international investors will have in Belgium, (which could endanger the health of the country in a whole new way.)  It doesn't feel like limbo, or a crisis, even though it is in the eyes of most other countries looking at Belgium.

For those of us who know that other places don't work this way, it makes little sense.  I think a lot of Belgians just don't know any better.  They don't know how much better it could be with a little reform to correct that obvious and currently exploited weak-point in their political process or believe the task of untangling and simplifying the process to be so precarious that it may in fact break, rather than fix the system.  I chalk much of the Belgian tranquility over no government to these things, but of course there's also apathy.  You might feel that way too if you were legally obliged to vote, and then forced to see that your vote had no real correlation to the eventual tangible result.  BUT, in any case you can't make a reform to the political process without the consensus of government, can you?  And you can't do that if there isn't a government!

But for now there's a tradition to be followed.  It's always been done this way, and it's always worked before.  Just wait, you'll see.  It'll work, eventually.  Maybe after this next informateur?


Efrutik said...

First of all thank you Jessica for going in depth on this matter. You really shed a light on a lot of the background on this for me personally, and yes I completely understand that this is your personal evaluation and observation of the things happening in the country that you now call home.

I saw a comment follow up to my question in your previous post and wanted to say that my question indeed was not meant as a scolding observation of the Belgians, but rather it exposed a curious inclination of mine which was making me think “why”, and I am sure a lot people were doing the same.

Obviously it seems in Belgium things are done in a very different way even if it is a democracy (which shows that democracy has a multitude of faces). It’s quite admirable actually in a way. Of course, I will not say that one way is better and the other is worse, believe me having lived in three different societies myself for a long period of times I will not be ignorant as to accept such a simplified outlook on life.

However, it would be nice when people would see the inefficiencies for exactly what they actually are and do something about it. Protests are good, yes I would in a great solidarity stand along the many Belgians who go out to the streets and voice their dissatisfaction with the present crippled system and what it has to offer as a result.

“BUT, you can't make a reform to the political process without the consensus of government, can you?”
You know to answer this question I would say, yes you can! Perhaps the voices of dissatisfaction should be louder and perhaps they will be, we have yet to see. After all, in Egypt the political reform arrived without the government’s consensus…but then again some may feel uncomfortable comparing the people of Egypt to those of Belgium. Yet people are people everywhere and their collective voices can change the systems anywhere as well. It seems after a bit of a global hiatus of this concept people are waking up again and realizing that this is possible yet again in our human history.

Such a great discussion Jessica, it would be very nice to hear the input of other as well. I look forward to reading follow up comments.

Anonymous said...

I think you summed it up pretty well, actually!

I also like the new look - snazzy.

Mons Ben said...

A damn, fine, post, Jessica. There should be a prize for any non-Belgian who's able to sum up and explain to the outside world what the hell is going on here, and actually get people to understand!

In response to Efrutik's comment about things being done differently in different democracies, and not professing to say whether one is better. Well, Efrutik, I have to disagree, I'm afraid. Belgium has shown the world how not to run a democracy.

Both me and Jessica live and blog about life in Wallonia (although we're here for very different reasons) so have first-hand experience of how things are done (or not).

Let me tell you, this country is an absolute mess. It's hugely divided, both politically and linguistically. The north mainly voted for right of centre/right wing parties at the last general election, the south opted for left wing ones. The two communities (sorry, I'm excluding the 70,000 German one for now!) rarely mix.

When you visit Flanders, it really is like being in a different country. The people are different in so many ways. I like the people in the south (in fact find them friendlier than their northern counterparts), but Wallonia is like something stuck in the 1970s. And I'm being kind when I say this.

I think the politicians of all stripes are a disgrace. I used to think that the break-up of this country was inevitable. Now I realise that that would require some level of efficiency and action, and it's this inertia that will probably keep Belgium together.

I think only really non-Belgians can see what a farce things are here. The people have been worn down and have given up caring.

That's my pennies worth for now! (by the way, for a lover of all things political, it's fascinating).

Ian said...

Posted in two parts

I’m a Belgian living abroad since quite a few years.
Like you I realise how absurd and farcical it all is (you got that right), but I’m afraid you got it wrong regarding the cause of this impasse.

Like most parliamentary monarchies the Belgian monarch must charge the winner of the election of forming the government. He gets the title of formateur and he is effectively the future prime minister. This process is standard in most European countries, even in the European republics where the President tasks the winner to form the government. The U.S. is actually quite an exception in western democracies where the president appoints the Ministers/Secretaries himself (regardless of the composition of senate or congress).
The process usually takes a day or two, a week maybe, even in Belgium, except the for the last few years: I’ll get to that later.

The main democratic difference between Belgium and Canada, the U.S., the U.K., etc is that Belgium has a legion of strong political parties whom all claim about 10/15 percent of the vote. This is quite different to the three party scenario I now experience in the U.K (I think Canada fits this as well) or the two party U.S. democracy.
Canada and the U.K can sometimes get away with a minority government, because when you need to vote new legislation there is 1 chance out of 2 that one of the remaining parties will agree with you, giving you at least some success rate in passing legislation. Hence you can actually GOVERN (there no use in governing if you can’t pass legislation). In Belgium (and the Netherlands as well) there are now at least 6/7 parties splitting the votes each time. Consequently if you do not get to an agreed framework on major issues with a majority of the parties (in terms of the seats in parliament) every single piece of legislation introduced by a minority government would be voted down by a majority of other parties. You might get a 10% success rate, at most. No party ever has full majority in parliament, unlike the US, the UK, Canada, France,… The more parties you have, the more it is like asking an Argentinian rancho, a vegetarian, a firsherman, a muslim and a hindu to agree on what to cook for dinner!

Ian said...

Another big difference between Belgium and Canada/ the US/the UK is that Belgium is extremely small. Where in the U.S. a Democrat from California might vote differently to a Democrat from Delaware on crucial issues (because of the very different electorate) this does not happen in Belgium. A Christian Democrat from Gent will vote in the same way as his pal from Antwerp (on the big issues): they have the same electorate. The consequence is that parties always vote as a one man in Belgium. There is hardly any defection when voting. That is very different to the UK or the US (not so sure about Canadian politics) where you can lobby a politician from another party on specific issues to vote against his own party. This second difference makes it difficult in Belgium to have a government without strong agreements made beforehand as there is no convincing individual politicians.

In the 70s Belgians went to the ballot box every two years on average because of governments being unable to get any significant vote through parliament. People got fed up and I think politicians decided there and then that iron clad agreements were required before starting to offer up new legislation as a government. Sounds quite agreeable to me. And it worked fine for 25 years. New parties appeared and others went, but you can hardly blamed Belgians for wanting more than two or three options for their ideals (conservatives/democrats/liberals).

This time though, King Albert II has to contend with the Flemish Nationalist N-VA party ‘winning’ in Flanders (they have 30% of the vote of 60% of the Belgians, they are the largest Flemish party at the moment). Their success is mostly a consequence of reactionary votes (itself a consequence of forcing people to vote, even though they don’t want to). Nevertheless, all parties are now on the back foot against each other. Walloons are scared of what the nationalists from N-VA could do with Belgium (and they don’t want any part of that) and the Flemish parties are scared to lose even more votes. We all know the current situation!

But really it is a ‘standard’ democratic system (at least in Europe), just with a lot more key players in the field that you need to agree with. You’re right in saying it’s absurd right now and politicians should get over themselves. But they are to blame, not the process. It still works fine in the UK or the Netherlands.

Looking forward to your comments.

Jessica said...

Thanks for this Ian - you've given me something to chew on and I want to make sure my response is as well considered as your comment.