From Vivaldi to Arizona: Belgium’s election results explained

Coalition talks are making rapid progress, by Belgian standards at least. After last month’s election, which saw a strong Flemish right and the socialists ousted from their southern stronghold, what does Belgium’s political future hold?
The Belgian parliament in Brussels. A month after the national election, it’s still not clear which of the dozen seat-winning parties will form the governing coalition.

By Sarah Schug

Sarah is a staff writer for The Parliament with a focus on art, culture, and human rights.

08 Jul 2024

Last week, UK Prime Minister Keir Starmer took office within hours of winning an election. Things are rarely so straightforward in Belgium where, a month after the national election, it’s still not clear which of the dozen seat-winning parties will form the governing coalition. 

With a fragmented political party landscape due to the country’s language split – Belgium does not have national parties – government formations have historically been complicated. Famously, this process took 541 days after the national election in June 2010. 

Things are already moving faster than after the last election in 2019, when it took more than a year just for a formateur, or lead negotiator, to be appointed. Now, the king has already tasked Bart De Wever with exploratory talks. 

The party leader of the Flemish nationalist, centre-right N-VA, which won the national vote with 16.7 per cent, is now in talks with the French-speaking liberal-conservative MR, Flemish socialists Vooruit, and the two regions’ Christian democrat parties, Les Engagés and CD&V – a putative coalition known as Arizona, because those parties’ colours match those of the US state’s flag. 

One thing is certain: The Vivaldi coalition, a reference to the composer’s The Four Seasons with its four political ideologies – liberals, greens, socialists and Christian democrats – is over. While Prime Minister Alexander De Croo will stay on as caretaker, he resigned shortly after hearing the poor result of his Flemish liberal OpenVLD party, which received only 5,4 per cent of votes.  

A different shift to the right 

The N-VA’s victory was unexpected: Polls had predicted an easy victory at the Flemish regional level, and even nationally, for Vlaams Belang, a much more extreme separatist party. 

As such, pundits and Vlaams Belang members reacted to the result as if it were a loss, despite the party coming second overall, says Dave Sinardet, a professor at the Free University of Brussels. “You have this bizarre situation where the interpretation of who is the winner and the loser has more to do with polls and perceptions and expectations than with the actual figures.” 

Benjamin Biard, a researcher at UC Louvain, says the result nevertheless signifies “a very important breakthrough” for Vlaams Belang, founded in 2004 from the remnants of Vlaams Blok, a far-right party that had been dissolved after being found by a court to have broken anti-racism laws. 

There is an extreme right which is very successful in Flanders and an extreme right that is completely marginalised in the south.

“They strengthened their presence in various parliamentary assemblies,” says Biard. “It’s the first party in terms of votes obtained at the level of the European Parliament, it achieved its best score at the federal level, and its second-best score in history at the Flemish level.” 

In Wallonia, the big winner has been MR, which claimed what Sinardet describes as a “historic victory” in the region with 29.6 per cent of the vote, ahead of the socialist PS, which has led the region for most of its recent history. 

Les Engagés – formerly Christian democrat party CDH – came third in Wallonia with 20.7 per cent. This means MR and Les Engagés can form a regional government without PS. 

“This shift to the right – not to the far right – in Wallonia was very surprising,” says Sinardet. “Before the elections, it was expected that this North-South gap of left and right would become even larger,” he says, a situation that would have made government formation extremely complicated.   

“It has always been said that in Belgium we have two democracies,” adds Herwig Reynaert, a political science professor at Ghent University. “Now the votes in Flanders and in the French-speaking part are both centre-right.” 

But if both regions’ votes were characterised by the strength of the centre-right, they are very different in terms of far-right politics. “We have a very contrasting country,” Biard says. “There is an extreme right which is very successful in Flanders and an extreme right that is completely marginalised in the south.” 

Chez Nous, a far-right party founded in Wallonia in 2021, failed to win a single seat at either the regional or national level. “On this side of the country, the marginality in which the extreme right has been immersed for several decades is continuing,” says Biard. 

This makes Wallonia a political anomaly at the European level, Sinardet says: “French-speaking Belgium is one of the only regions in Europe where there is no strong radical right party.” 

Biard attributes this partly to the cordon sanitaire (protective barrier) policy established by the Belgian French-speaking media, which agreed to not invite representatives of the far right to radio and TV shows to reduce their visibility. He also cites the liveliness of Walloon civil society, where antifascist movements are very “structured and mobilised”. 

Meanwhile, political scientists agree on Wallonia’s identity being historically much less pronounced than in its Flemish counterpart. 

Coalition in the making 

Wallonia’s socialists already announced they will enter neither the national nor the regional government, but their Flemish counterparts, Vooruit, may be able to govern alongside N-VA as part of the Arizona coalition. 

“There's a big chance this will work out because there aren’t many alternatives and everybody agrees that this is the logical outcome of the elections,” says Sinardet. 

Biard points out that the Arizona coalition would have a comfortable majority in the national parliament but also within each language group, something that hasn’t been the case in years.

Compromise is inscribed into the Belgian political system. 

Surrounded by centre-right parties, the Flemish socialists find themselves in the most difficult situation in the group. Still, according to Reynaert, talks could progress rather quickly as the party has a constructive dialogue with NV-A. 

Plus, Belgium has a history of unlikely partnerships. “In the last government, pro-nuclear power liberals worked together with anti-nuclear power ecologists as well as socialists and liberals who don’t share the same ideas when it comes to financing healthcare or employment,” says Biard. “Compromise is inscribed into the Belgian political system.” 

Nonetheless, one party finds itself isolated: Despite its electoral success, Vlaams Belang will be excluded from the national government formation.  At least one French-speaking party is required to be part of the government, and none of them would be willing to cooperate with it. The N-VA also said before the election that it wouldn’t work with Vlaams Belang.  

Flemish nationalism turned on its head 

With both parties seeking Flemish independence, it might appear strange that N-VA won’t even work with Vlaams Belang in the Flemish regional government, where the two parties took almost 50 per cent between them. 

But while Vlaams Belang desires a “revolution”, the N-VA wants an “evolution”, Reynaert explains. On its website, the N-VA writes: “Our final target is indeed an independent Flanders as a European Member State, but the progression to reach it is gradual and must occur in a democratic manner.” 

Accordingly, Sinardet expects state reform – meaning a transfer of powers to the regional level – to be NV-A’s biggest priority. This may go beyond the idea of “asymmetric policies”, whereby politicians would leave formal powers at the federal level but in practice adopt different policies towards Flanders and Wallonia. 

Our final target is indeed an independent Flanders as a European Member State.

The justification for such policies was the starkly different politics of the two regions, with Flanders leaning right and Wallonia left. Now, with MR leading in Wallonia, that’s no longer the case, Sinardet says: “The main argument used by the N-VA and Bart De Wever for this autonomy has disappeared.” 

That may leave the door open to true state reform, he says, but this won’t be straightforward: constitutional changes require a two-thirds majority in parliament. 

For once, resistance to a right-wing economic program may come from Flanders, since Vooruit looks likely to join the coalition while PS will not.  

“The Flemish and nationalist right have always complained that right-wing policies couldn't be conducted in Belgium because of the Walloon left – but now it might be the Flemish side who has to deal with the Socialists,” Sinardet says. 

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