Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès is running out of time.
The emergency powers that parliament granted her to tackle the coronavirus expire in June. By September, she’ll be obliged to seek another confirmation vote — but her minority government only holds 38 of the 150 seats in parliament.
“Belgium needs a government that has a majority in parliament,” she told Belgian newspaper De Tijd last weekend. “The sooner this happens, the better.”
Which is why Belgian political parties are starting coalition talks all over again, just a year after the last inconclusive elections and little over one and a half years after Charles Michel’s government lost its majority, in December 2018.
The coalition talks are starting up again in the midst of the worst health and economic crisis since World War II, at a time when the Belgian public’s support for its political leaders is at historic lows.
“You can be loved on Monday and hated on Tuesday. Sophie remained very cautious regarding this enthusiasm, and took it with great humility” — Someone close to Wilmès’ family
After a decade of political impasse, only one-third of voters think their politicians are competent, according to a research project at the University of Antwerp. There have never been fewer people in the Flemish-speaking north of Belgium who are satisfied with the functioning of Belgian democracy.
This is also true in the French-speaking south of the country. “It has been a decade when we have faced a crisis in our representative democracy,” said Benjamin Biard, researcher at the Francophone Socio-Political Research and Information Centre (CRISP). “The results of the last elections have not solved it.”
In Flanders, that discontent is fuelling a big surge in support for the far-right Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) party. After coming second in Flanders in last May’s election, they are now leading the polls with the backing of one in four votes in the region.
“The corona crisis hasn’t necessarily lifted the populist right in Flanders,” said Stefaan Walgrave, who coordinated the University of Antwerp study. “The dissatisfaction with politics was already omnipresent before the crisis hit.”
At the same time, Wilmès’ early popularity proved short-lived. She succeeded Michel almost by accident, following his departure for the presidency of the European Council in October, and was supposed to lead the caretaker government while others tried to strike a political agreement. But when the coronavirus hit, politicians set aside their differences and backed a short-term government led by Wilmès. The 45-year-old French-speaking liberal found herself unexpectedly leading the country through a pandemic.
In the early weeks of the crisis, her soothing tone and calm but decisive communication style earned plaudits — but her lack of experience at the highest level has also hampered efficient decision-making, according to several Belgian officials.
“You can be loved on Monday and hated on Tuesday. Sophie remained very cautious regarding this enthusiasm, and took it with great humility,” said someone close to Wilmès’ family.
Aligning Belgium’s complex system of federal, regional and language-based governments behind her pandemic strategy was never going to be simple, and contributed to Wilmès’ perceived failure to present Belgium’s long-awaited exit strategy in a clear fashion. That press conference, which included an incomprehensible Powerpoint presentation, started so late and was so long that it was mocked for days. At her next press conference, Wilmès reassured journalists with a smile that “there won’t be a Powerpoint this time.”
Naturally enough, Wilmès has been better received in the French-speaking part of Belgium, where she is more well known.
According to Biard, although the prime minister was short on experience, “she nevertheless managed to hold the federal government’s reins,” especially in the wake of her first news conference, where she announced that Belgium was going into lockdown. Most impressive was her ability to reach consensus among bickering regional authorities on the question of closing schools, said the researcher.
But even in her Francophone stronghold, Wilmès faced discontent, including among health workers, who turned their back on her in protest when she visited Saint-Pierre Hospital in Brussels. Widely covered by media, the protest helped the workers achieve one of their aims, which was to revoke two decrees that permitted the requisitioning of medical staff and the recruitment of unqualified people to carry out nursing activities.
The revoked decrees highlighted the government’s “lack of empathy and consideration for health workers,” said Denis Huart from the sector protest group La Santé en lutte.
The hospital incident encapsulated the eroding trust in the prime minister. The wide support that she enjoyed early on in the crisis, when more than half of citizens polled thought she was doing a good job, soon evaporated. By the end of April, that had fallen to 35 percent, according to Walgrave’s research. In a poll of Flemish voters, Wilmès doesn’t even make the top 10 most popular politicians.
“We haven’t really seen a ‘rally round the flag’ principle in Belgium, but it’s hard to say whether that has to do with Wilmès’ communication and a lack of leadership, or because people are just fed up with the current situation,” said Walgrave. “This country is in desperate need of a stable government.”
“A fraction of society has been totally forgotten,” added Yves Hellendorff of the CNE, a French-speaking trade union. “After the health crisis will come the social dilemma.”
At first glance, it looks like talks over a new Belgian government are back where they were after last year’s inconclusive elections, with Flemish nationalists winning in the north while the French-speaking Walloon region in the south leans more toward the left.
What’s new is the sense of urgency injected by the pandemic and economic crisis: If the coalition talks don’t provide the perspective of a new government, and Wilmès has to seek a new confirmation vote in September, Belgium is likely to face new elections.
It’s far from clear who has the best chance of forming the next government. After the last three governments led by French-speaking Socialist Elio Di Rupo and French-speaking liberals Michel and then Wilmès, the Flemish might argue that it’s their turn to claim the keys of the Rue de la Loi 16, the office of the Belgian prime minister.
On the other hand, they may decide it’s more strategic to leave Wilmès in le seize, as the office is known. As Flemish nationalist Bart De Wever — Belgium’s most popular politician — once said: “Winning elections in Belgium is the worst thing that can happen to you. Or worse still: becoming prime minister. No. 16 represents the percentage you get once you leave.”