Letter from Belgium

One complains about the American political situation a lot, of course, and why not? But it’s good to keep in mind that other countries face structural dilemmas which are totally alien to us. In a long and brilliant post on Crooked Timber, Ingrid Robeyns explains the deadlock between the Flemings and the Walloons, and why Belgium has no government. Just to give a taste:

Governments in Belgium, both the federal and the regional ones, are always made up from coalitions. But these coalitions are not the same in all governments. In part this is due to the non-coinciding elections [Federal elections are held every 4 years, but elections for the regions and communities every 5 years, together with the European elections. Local elections are every 6 years.], in part this is also due to the fact that the parties do not have the same size at both sides of the language border. For example, the Flemish Christian democrats are the biggest party in Flanders, but are a rather small party within Francophone Belgium. Flanders also has a considerable extreme-right seperatist party, Vlaams Belang (which, ironically, is receiving some votes from Francophones in Brussels thanks to their security and anti-muslim agenda), whereas there is no such political factor in Wallonia. So these asymmetries create difficult situations. For examples, at the last regional elections the Christian Democratic Parties became part of the regional governments in Flanders and Wallonia, but they were part of the opposition in the Federal Government (which was made up from the (Flemish and French) Social Democratic Parties, and the (Flemish and French) Liberal Parties). This can lead to strange party-dynamics, which in the present crisis of the negotiations the federal level are also an explanatory factor why there is still no Belgian government. For example, the French Christian Democratic Party (CDH) is currently part of the government of the Walloon region, together with the French Social-Democratic Party (PS). But at the last federal elections, the PS (and its Flemish sisterparty SP) lost many seats, such that the current negotiations at the federal level are between the Christian Democratic parties and the liberal parties. This leads to the difficult situations for parties that are in different positions at the different levels. CDH is part of the center-left coalition at the Walloon regional level, but is negotiating to become part of a center-right government at the federal level. Since the voters are likely not to make a distinction between whether the acts of parties are made in their capacities as rulers at the federal versus the regional levels, it may be very difficult for any particular party to be in a center-right coalition at one level, and a center-left at another level.

There are some advantages to the calcified two-party system that Americans, to some extent, enjoy.

If you want to listen to the Mountain Goats song “Letter from Belgium” (and I really think you might!) you can listen to a live performance (19 Oct 2004, Mt. Pleasant, SC) here, via the remarkable Live Music Archive:

“That’s good, we can always use some more electrical equipment!”

Update:  If you listen to more of the linked concert, you hear John Darnielle getting the news of the Red Sox winning game 6 of the 2004 ALCS, right after “Going to Georgia.”

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