Belgium: Government resigns

But no real alternative on offer

Mid-December saw the collapse of the Belgian government after the Prime Minister, Flemish Christian democrat Yves Leterme, offered its resignation to the King after the supreme court accused the government of interfering in the judicial system over the Fortis case. In this way Leterme ended his agony. This government lasted only nine months, having only being created after nine months of haggling between the major parties following the June 2007 general election. In that election Leterme had obtained no less than 800.000 preferential votes on the basis of a promise of “good administration” and “five minutes of political courage to cut the knot between both linguistic communities”.

Against all the press commentators LSP/MAS, the CWI in Belgium, warned already a day after the June 10 2007 elections against euphoria. Leterme, we argued, would pay a high price for his strategy of stirring communal divisions at the moment his party was still in opposition together with the Flemish nationalist NVA. “In this sense it looks as if the formation of a government will be long. Even so long that Leterme might be forced to drop the NVA (his then Flemish nationalist partner) because a coalition of Christian democrats and liberals, eventually strengthened with a third partner, collides over the national question. In this case a classical tripartite, eventually with the Flemish social democrats who still officially are in the opposition, is not excluded. Such a government will unavoidably be a government of crisis that will probably stop activity in the run up to the regional elections of 2009.”

Eventually after a record 192 days of negotiations an interim government was formed under the leadership of former prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, a liberal. After that, on March 2 this year, power was passed on to Leterme, heading a coalition of Christian democrats and liberal parties from both the Flemish and French speaking communities along with the francophone social democrats. Five months later Leterme was forced to drop his nationalist election alliance (“cartel”) partner the NVA after it became clear there would be no agreement on a new state reform. In October he turned up with a budget judged completely unrealistic by his own coalition partners that drowned his “good administrators” profile. In the end the management of the financial crisis and especially its handling of the Fortis banking collapse became the last straw for the government.

However the panicky way in which Leterme and his government sold out the country’s biggest bank led to this current drama. As Fortis plunged into crisis the Dutch government succeeded in recuperating not only ABN-Amro for half the price Fortis had paid for it only a few months earlier, but they even succeeded in getting the Dutch branch of Fortis included in the deal. If it depended on the Belgian government the rest of Fortis was to be sold to the French bank BNP Paribas for next to nothing. Only Fortis’s rotten subprime mortgages would be left over with the Belgian authorities. No wonder that BNP Paribas was not scared away by the court decision on the break-up of Fortis postponing the sell off. Paribas simply postponed its own meeting not wanting to let slip such an interesting deal. Some “small” asset holders, grouped by one of the juridical charlatans, smelled money as well and wanted to recuperate a bigger deal for themselves from the government.

At the same time the government has made the state guarantee about 150 billion euro worth of savings. That is half the total debt of the country, nearly half of its GDP. If it goes wrong with Fortis we will all have to pay for it well into the next decades. If the community has to take such a risk, why not keep Fortis in its own hands and run it by democratically elected representatives of the community? Wouldn’t that be a better guarantee for our savings and the jobs at Fortis? Small asset holders could than enjoy compensation on the basis of proven need, not this whole reactionary crowd that has threatened workers as dogs for years.

All politicians agree over the essence of the Fortis affair. It is only the fact that the government has broken the “holy principle” of the separation of powers, thus undermining the illusion of impartiality of the justice system that made Leterme’s position untenable. Workers at Carrefour, Eandis and Beaulieu, who all have been on strike in the past months, know better. When the boss, as is the case with the Beaulieu textile giant, is involved in tax fraud, the case is ultimately dropped because the judicial time limit is exceeded. But when a boss needs to remove a picket line, within a few hours a bailiff is present who sends the police to pick out and arrest those workers signalled out by the boss. Don’t tell them about separation of powers or so called impartial justice.

Nobody believes Leterme’s government was the first to try and influence a court decision. It’s the logic of a system in crisis. Instead of covering up for each other, established politicians are now hanging each other on the gallows. With some populists in parliament, it is easy to spread the fire. What will happen now? The King has asked the Flemish christian democrat Wilfried Martens, who headed nine coalitions between 1979 and 1992, to begin consultations on forming a new government. Probably an interim government will be formed with exactly the same parties in it, but with some ministers, including Leterme, being replaced. Some former prime minister might take over for a limited period to administer the Fortis deal and to work out the start of a communal compromise. But this government will probably resign and call federal elections to coincide with the already planned regional and European elections in June 2009.

If the result of those elections allows it, all traditional political families, the christian democrats, liberals and social democracy, could form coalitions at all levels of administration, this winning at least 4 years without elections to make workers pay for the crisis. Such a scenario would also be the best outcome to negotiate a state reform that makes the regional governments responsible to run down social spending. Will they succeed? As long as there is no credible electoral alternative to the left of social democracy and greens, the spectre of an extreme right Flanders will be used to make workers and their families swallow whatever the bosses wish.