Belgium has two versions of federalism. One based on regions (in this map, Dutch-speaking Flanders in yellow, French-speaking Wallonia in red at bottom, and French-speaking Brussels is the red dot in the sea of yellow.)
Also, the country is divided into linguistic communities — French, Dutch, and German (the blue stuff on the right). In an interesting experiment, these legislatures are non-territorial. A registered francophone living in Flanders votes for seats in the French-speaking parliament.
This is the loosest constitutional federalism in the developed world. In addition to such typical competences as education and language, these smaller units also have strong sway over justice and some departments of international relations (that’s right — the two larger sections of Belgium run largely independent foreign policies in some arenas).
This political bifurcation of Belgium has gone all the way to the political apparatus at this point. There is no national political party in the country as everyone — Greens, Socialists, Liberals, etc., is divided into two groups that work together. So you have les socialistes and die socialistiche. French-speaking parties run only in French-speaking areas and vice versa.
While some parties worked more closely with their partner than others (Green MPs would even take their parliamentary oath in their second language), one could usually expect all Belgiane Liberals or all the Socialists to support a common candidate, giving that person a working coalition.
Until Yves Leterme came along. He is among the first whose career flowered during this divisive time. “Mr. Flanders” as he’s known is a popular figure in Dutch-speaking Flanders…and unknown in Wallonia. So, when he introduces himself by, say, not knowing the French words to the Belgian national anthem and humming “Le Marsaiellaise” instead, well it’s bad mojo. Imagine a New England presidential candidate ignorant of Jefferson Davis, Fort Sumter, and NASCAR all rolled into one. That’s what we got with Yves. Oh, and he’s ignorant of the French-based origin of the Belgian equivalent of July 4th. Video below for French-speakers:
Now the 40% of the Belgian political establishment that is French-speaking loathes him. About 40% of the Flemish-speaking establishment already detested him because of his take-no-prisoners climb to the top. It’s tough to build a coalition when the top vote-getter was alienated two-thirds of the country. Their best hope for a prime minister is hated much more that tolerated.
What will happen next is open to question. The king (yes, they have one) has tried to bring people together to no avail. New elections would likely be a boon for the smaller nationalist parties. A sacrifice of Leterme is not impossible.
But have you heard about massive waves of starvation? Panic in the Belgian countryside? Of course not — because it seems increasingly that the federal government plays the same role in Belgium as county government in Massachusetts — nice to have but not horribly, necessary.
The geographical and linguistic communities handle most domestic chores. The Brussels-based Europe Union does monetary, financial and increasingly foreign policy (and the Belgian elite love the idea of the EU), and Brussels-based NATO directs what armed forces they have. For a sense of proportion, most Belgian news agencies do not lead with this story, but focus on the goings-on at the lower levels. Imagine November 2000, and the Globe leads with a story about the governor’s new policy.
Whether this is the end of Belgium, stumbling to dissolution as did Czechoslovakia is possible. Unlikely says I, but possible. In any case, an interesting developing story that makes 2000 seem like a glitch.
Crossposted at my sorta-blog Quriltai on the Shore