Perhaps it was the advent of Christmas that focused the minds of Belgium's squabbling factions, who finally joined together Friday to form an emergency coalition government. Because there have been precious few gestures of goodwill between Belgium's Flemish and French speakers during six months of political deadlock that seemed to tear the country apart.
Tensions have always existed between the Flemish, who account for around 60% of Belgium's 10.5 million citizens, and the French speakers. But the stalemate since the June 10 elections appear to have frayed ties even more, with the Flemish in particular questioning why they should be subsidizing the French speakers, based mainly in the poorer, southern region of Wallonia. The bad blood even extended to the Miss Belgium contest in Antwerp last weekend: the eventual winner, Alizée Poulicek, is of Czech origin, but despite speaking French and English, her failure to master Dutch earned her boos from the local crowd.
For the moment, at least, there is respite in Belgium's governmental crisis. The interim cabinet means that the clock stopped on 194 days without a new Belgian government, only a couple of weeks short of the European record of 208, set by the Netherlands in 1977. But there won't be any time for a honeymoon period: no sooner had the coalition formed than 14 people were arrested after authorities foiled a plot to free an al-Qaeda suspect arrested in September 2001. "They were planning to use weapons and explosives to free him ... These means could be employed for another use", confirmed the federal prosecutor's office.
The 14 ministers in the unity government who took their oaths of office Friday will face a full parliamentary vote of confidence on Monday. They will be led by outgoing Flemish Liberal Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt. In principle, it will remain in office until March 23 next year. The government consists of five political parties: Liberals and Christian Democrats from both language communities, along with the French-speaking Socialists. Although the coalition is disproportional in terms of parties, its ministerial split is an even seven each for the Flemish and French-speaking parties.
Verhofstadt's caretaker administration has been tasked by King Albert II to manage pressing problems such as the 2008 budget, the Belgian troop presence in Lebanon, and the rise in food and fuel prices. Last Saturday, about 20,000 people took part in a demonstration called by unions to protest against the political state of paralysis and the aforementioned price hikes. Last week, the Belgian central bank said inflation would speed up next year to its highest rates of the decade, while economic growth will slow more than previously projected. On top of that, the European Commission has also warned that the political paralysis is beginning to affect Belgium's economy.
Verhofstadt also needs to lay the groundwork for a more permanent administration, led by the biggest winner of the June elections, Flemish Christian Democrat Yves Leterme. Leterme, whose party has been out of office for eight years, has been unable to stitch together his own government coalition. At various times over the past six months, both he and his prospective coalition partners from the French-speaking parties have appeared baffled at one another's demands. An emergency coalition is thought to be one way of helping them understand each other better.
The new government retains the posts of Interior Minister Patrick Dewael, Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht, and Finance Minister Didier Reynders. Francophone liberal Reynders, one of two deputy Prime Ministers, claimed that the formation of a government meant "the crisis is over for Belgium." However, questions still surround the managerial ability of Leterme: after all, the Flemish firebrand failed to form a government despite six months of trying. By contrast, Verhofstadt took less than two weeks to secure his unity coalition.
Leterme, one of four Flemish Christian Democrats in the coalition, is the other deputy Prime Minister. Although nominally in charge of the budget portfolio, he will lead talks with the other parties on constitutional changes. These talks will be amongst a group of 12 established political names that Verhofstadt will choose although the departing prime minister will not himself be part of the process. If these talks fail, there is the chance that the interim government could stay on until the regional elections in 2009, which might then double up with another federal poll. But such chatter underlines the fragile nature of Belgium, and its perennial state of compromise. Although there is relief that Belgium finally has a government, there is a niggling fear that this particular Christmas present will not keep the country's factions satisfied for long.