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Should Belgium Have a President?

July 19, 2011

Since Greece received its first bailout in May 2010, the Eurozone countries that were seen as the most likely to need rescue were classified as the “PIIGS” (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain).  While there is not a “B” in pig, some have wondered if Belgium should also be included in this group.  Until recently, it appeared that Belgium would continue to remain outside of this group of countries (see “Does Belgium Need a Government?”).  However, the German news magazine Spiegel recently ran a story on how the Euro Crisis could still travel to Belgium.

Unlike the PIIGS, Belgium’s problems are more political than economic, as the country has been without a government for over a year.  While this situation has made it difficult to introduce an austerity budget, it is not as if no one is running the country.  As Belgium’s acting finance minister, Didier Reynders stated in the article, “Although we are only in office on a caretaker basis, we still have a majority in parliament.”  This has made me wonder if Belgium really needs a “legitimate” government or if a caretaker government suites the country just fine (see “Does Belgium Need a Government?”).

If the Belgians feel that they really need to have someone with an official mandate to run the country, perhaps they should create a presidency or directly elect their head of government (i.e. prime minster)?  While I am not aware of any country that has a king and president, a directly elected prime minister would not be unique to Belgium, as Israel introduced such an idea in 1996.  In order to ensure that the prime minister really does speak for all Belgians, perhaps the candidate would have to pass a double threshold to be elected, such as receiving a majority of all votes cast across the country as well as a certain percentage in Flanders, Wallonia, Brussels, and the German-speaking region.  An outright majority might be hard to achieve, but there should be some sort of threshold that requires candidates to try to appeal to both the Dutch and French speaking groups, say 40%.  I am not suggesting that the rules for choosing this leader be as complicated as those for the ill-fated Yugoslav President, but surely there must be a way to give someone a popular mandate.

Ideally, this would solve a major problem for Belgium.  Currently the largest party in parliament is the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), which wants Flanders to secede from Belgium.  However, N-VA only has 27 seats, or 18 percent of the seats in parliament.  In fact, there are ten parties in the Belgium’s Chamber of Representatives, and not only do they represent the traditional left-right divide, but they are also divided into Flemish and a Walloon blocks.  As a result, N-VA can be the largest party in Chamber of Representatives, despite only receiving 17.4% of the popular vote.  If Belgium were to adopt a system with a directly elected head of government, perhaps this could help create Belgian political parties, instead of the current system where this a Flemish and Walloon social democratic party for instance.  Even if a clear governing coalition was not created by this new system, as Reynders said, a governing system is already in place, just not a government.

Of course, this new system would probably be opposed by Belgian politicians, who benefit from the current polarized system, but if Belgians really want to have a Belgian government, this system might overcome the current impasse.

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