Tag Archives: Belgium

Kings, Queens, and Contemporary European Politics

The Netherland's Queen Beatrix Addressing Parliament.

The Netherland’s Queen Beatrix Addressing Parliament.

The Netherland’s Queen Beatrix last week abdicated her position, handing the monarchy to her son, Willem-Alexander. Her decision was seen as both unexpected and usual, bucking the trend of other European monarchs, such as those in Spain, Belgium, Sweden, and Denmark, which have held on to power despite personal and political challenges. While far more popular than her son, it is unlikely that Queen Beatrix’s resignation will have any lasting effect on Dutch politics.

But what exactly do kings and queens do?

Many European countries retain a hereditary monarchy by tradition. The functions of the executive, which are fused into a single office in the United States, are separated into two offices under these systems. The monarch usually serves as the ceremonial head of state, while a president or prime minister serves as the head of government. The responsibilities of the head of state are largely symbolic; real power is vested in the head of government. In the United Kingdom, for example, Queen Elizabeth is the ceremonial head of state, while Prime Minister David Cameron is the active head of government. Queen Elizabeth performs public duties like opening parliament and receiving ambassadors, while David Cameron performs the real governing, introducing legislation, making policy decisions, and so on.

The separation of the two positions carries some advantages. In countries like Belgium, where language politics have created strong divisions within the country and made governance (at least at the national level) effectively impossible, a ceremonial head of state (King Albert II) can provide a sense of continuity and acts as a symbol of national unity. There are also some who argue that the separation of the two positions creates additional checks on the power of the government. In the United Kingdom, for example, Queen Elizabeth II must give “royal assent” (approval) to all legislation passed by parliament. While royal ascent has not been withheld in Great Britain since the 1700s, it has been denied more recently in some former British colonies. Canada’s Governor General (the Queen’s representative in Canada), denied royal assent to a bill in 1963. Despite its rare usage, many groups lobby the Queen to deny royal assent on measures they oppose.

That said, ceremonial heads of state can sometimes create headaches for

Spain's King Juan Carlos Safaris in Botswana.

Spain’s King Juan Carlos Safaris in Botswana.

political leaders. Take, for example, Spain’s King Juan Carlos’s decision last year to participate in a €10,000-a-day hunting safari in Botswana as the country’s struggled with an ongoing economic crisis and an unemployment rate reaching 30 percent—hardly the image Spain wanted to project at the time.

What do you think? Does the division of executive power into multiple offices establish a stronger, more effective, or more democratic government? Or does it merely create greater opportunity for corruption and uncertainty? Would support the creation of a separate head of state in the United States? Take the poll below or leave a comment and let us know what you think?

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Who Governs Lebanon?

Lebanon's Prime Minister, Saad al-Hariri, waves to the crowd at a political rally.

Lebanon's Prime Minister, Saad al-Hariri, waves to the crowd at a political rally.

Incumbent Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri will remain in his post as head of a caretaker government in Lebanon, according to a report by the BBC yesterday. Lebanon had been poised to enter a period of political deadlock and uncertainty, and the Arab League described the situation in Lebanon as “tense,” after eleven ministers from Hariri’s ruling coalition resigned last week. The ministers, all of whom have ties to the powerful Hezbollah party, are angry about plans by a United Nations-backed tribunal to indict several of its members for their alleged involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was also the father of current Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri. Their decision effectively dismantled the government of national unity [glossary] that had been in place since 2008.

Lebanon appears to be entering a prolonged period of political stalemate which, unlike the longstanding stalemate in Belgium, will likely paralyze the country. The country is sharply divided along religious and sectarian lines and has a history of civil conflict. The National Pact, the informal agreement that has governed Lebanese politics since 1943, mandates that the top three political posts in the country be allocated on the basis of religion, with the country’s president be a Maronite Christian, its Prime Minister be a Sunni Muslim, and its Speaker of the Parliament be a Shi’a Muslim. The Pact also reserves half the parliament for Christian parties and half for Muslim parties. 

Further, neighboring powers, including Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, have regularly intervened in Lebanese affairs.

The current political standoff in Lebanon is more than a simple problem of coalition [glossary] politics. Hezbollah, the favored party of the country’s Shi’a population, is more than an opposition party. It is also the most powerful military force in the country and frequently operates as a government in its own right, operating its own satellite television station and providing social services like subsidized housing and welfare support to people across the country. Internationally, Hezbollah’s paramilitary wing has been a strong opponent of Israel.

If al-Hariri is unable to re-establish a majority coalition in the parliament—a situation that appears highly unlikely, given Hezbollah’s strong opposition to the release of tribunal findings—Lebanon appears likely to remain in a political quagmire. Neither side can form a ruling coalition without the support of the other, but neither side appears willing to compromise.

But concerns also run deeper. Many domestic observers are cautioning that the political standoff could turn violent, rekindling tensions remaining from the Lebanese Civil War. And if that takes place, it is possible that Israel would feel compelled to intervene, as it did most recently in 2006, resulting in the displacement of some 1.5 million people in northern Israel and southern Lebanon  More broadly such a conflict would also endanger the ongoing talks with the Palestinians. Unlike the political stalemate in Belgium, which has been unable to form a ruling coalition in its national parliament since elections in July 2010, the political stalemate in Lebanon appears both more fragile and more dangerous.

The Continuing Challenge of Coalition Politics

Julia Gillard

Australian Prime Minisiter Julia Gillard

Australia has a new government, two weeks after elections left the future of Australian politics in uncertainty. Two independent members of parliament (MPs) announced they would back Julia Gillard’s minority government, permitting the Labour Party to continue to try to govern the country. But Gillard’s government is fragile. She’s promised the Greens a renewed effort to address climate change in exchange for their support and three rural MPs a high-speed fiber optic cable to connect their rural constituencies with the national broadband network. The deals give Gillaard’s center-left Labour Party coalition a narrow two-seat advantage over the rival Liberal/National coalition. But Gillard’s ability to manage her narrow majority will be tested at nearly every turn, as a single defection from the coalition could trigger a confidence motion in the government.

But the news is less positive in Belgium, where three-month old talks collapsed over the weekend, leaving the country without a national government. Belgium, like its neighbor the Netherlands, has been without a government since elections in June. The defeated pre-election government continues to operate as a caretaker government. But Belgium has, since July 1, also held the rotating presidency of the European Council.

In both the Netherlands and Belgium, the inability of the various political factions to form a new coalition government stems largely from the rise of political parties which lack any real interest in establishing a national government. In Belgium, the longstanding linguistic division and the rise of parties like the Vlaams Belang make it difficult to form alliances between traditional allies across the Flemish-French linguistic divide. Strong anti-immigration platforms in the Netherlands have also undermined coalition possibilities.

But the challenges facing Belgium and the Netherlands (and the crisis narrowly avoided in Australia) demonstrate the challenge of coalition politics. While the proportional representation electoral system [glossary] used in Belgium and the Netherlands affords voters a greater choice of political parties, it also fractures the political spectrum. Twelve separate political parties are represented in the lower house of the Belgian parliament, the largest of which controls just 18 percent of the seats. In such a fragmented political system, it is hardly surprising that a coalition would be difficult to form. Indeed, any realistic coalition would have to (1) transcend the linguistic divide, arguably the most difficult and controversial division in Belgium today; and (2) involve more than five coalition partners.  A tall task indeed!

Is Belgium the Future of Britain?

Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme

Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme

It’s been a turbulent week in Belgian politics. The country, created in 1830, is often referred to as the capital of Europe as it is home to the major institutions of the European Union. But Belgium has long been wracked by a divisive language dispute, pitting the Dutch-speaking Flemish in the north against their French-speaking neighbors, the Wallonians, in the south. The linguistic division is reflected in the broader political division and structure of the country. 

Belgium is a federal state [glossary], with much of the political power of the country devolved to the regional and local governments. The devolution of political power in Belgium (and the broader federal structure of the state as well) were part of a series of efforts to maintain the political unity of the country in the face of intensifying linguistic divisions.

There are twelve major political parties in Belgium, each vying for seats in the national parliament, which are granted on the basis of proportional representation [glossary]. Parties are divided on the basis of ideology and language. Thus there are two Green parties, one for the French-speaking Waloonians and another for the Dutch-speaking Flemish. There are similarly two socialist parties, two nationalist parties, two liberal parties, and so on.

The sharp divisions in parliament make it difficult for governments to establish coalitions. Indeed, in a not-so-surprising development on Monday, the Belgian Prime Minister, Yves Leterme, tendered his resignation after the Flemish liberal party withdrew its support from the coalition government. The collapse of Leterme’s government comes just five months after he cobbled together a power-sharing agreement brining in his own Flemish Christian Democrats, the Open Flemish Liberal Party, the Waloonian Reform Movement, the Waloonian Socialist Party, and the Waloonian Human Democratic Centre Party.

The collapse of Leterme’s government is the most recent in a series of short-lived coalitions attempting to govern the country. In the last crisis, Belgium was without a national government for nearly six months as parties squabbled over the composition of the cabinet. But the timing of the most recent crisis is poor, coming just two months before Belgium is scheduled to take over the European Union’s rotating presidency. Snap elections have been scheduled, but there is little reason to believe the new parliament will be any more successful than the previous one in developing a stable coalition government. Belgian newspapers are already forecasting the dissolution of the country into two separate states, with headlines like “Bye-Bye Belgium.”

At the same time, British elections are shaping up to be an interesting affair, with many observers forecasting a hung parliament divided between the three major British parties (the Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democratic Parties), each controlling a portion of the parliament but none able to establish a majority coalition. Add to that regional tensions, pressure for greater devolution of political authority to the governments of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, and you’ve got the recipe for some tumultuous politics.

But is Belgium the future of Britain? It’s an interesting thought experiment, but it’s not likely. Belgium’s political divisions run far deeper than Britain’s, and the linguistic divide is probably stronger and tenser than the United Kingdom’s nationalist divide. There are far fewer viable parties in British politics as well, thanks in part to the first-past-the-post electoral system [glossary] used there.  That said, is Britain winds up with a hung parliament, we could likely look forward to more British elections in the not-too-distant future.

Five Stories You Might Have Missesd

Efforts to rescue the failing auto industry continue, as President Bush last week announced a $17.4 billion package targeting the big three American auto manufacturers.  The Canadian government has stepped in with a C$4 billion package of its own, and pressure is growing on the British government to follow suit.

Here’s five other stories important from the previous week:

 1.  Despite the announcement of a record production cut by OPEC last week, oil prices continued to slide, falling below $34 per barrel—a four year low—on Friday.  Many analysts have raised concerns about the stability of oil prices, though oil producers and oil consumers remain at odds over precisely what the price should be.  In an interesting side note, falling oil prices have also undermined the ability of Venezuela to pursue its policy of supporting like-minded governments in Latin America.  Chavez’s government has pledged $30 billion in direct payments, oil financings, and other initiatives developed through the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, whose members include Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Dominica, and Honduras.

2.  Prime Minister Yves Leterme’s government in Belgium resigned on Friday after the country’s supreme court found signs that the government had attempted to exercise undue influence over the country’s courts.  The resignation of Leterme’s government is the most recent indication of political instability in the country, sharply divided along linguistic lines and perpetually in danger of dissolution.  The government has been in office since March, after taking more than nine months to cobble together his five-party coalition.  As head of state, King Albert II must now decide whether to accept the resignation and schedule new elections, or try to form a new coalition out of the country’s sharply divided parliament.

3.  Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and Israelis living near it are bracing for a renewal of violence this weekend as the Egyptian-negotiated ceasefire between the Israeli government and the Hamas-led government in Gaza ended on Friday.  The fragile ceasefire has been in place for six months, but both sides have regularly violated the agreement.  In response to rocket attacks against Israeli settlements, the Israeli military has closed all entry-points into Gaza, effectively cutting the region off from the outside world and creating severe shortages of key materials, including food and fuel.  The Hamas government asserts that it will not stop the rocket attacks until the blockage is lifted.

4.  On Thursday, a United Nations court found Colonel Theoneste Bagosora guilty of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Rwanda and sentenced him to life in prison.  Bagosora assumed leadership of the military, and became the de facto leader of Rwanda after President Huvenal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down in April, 1994.  The downing of the plane marked the beginning of the mass killings, which resulted in the murder of more than 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda.  The conviction makes Bagosora the highest-ranking member of the Hutu-dominated Rwandan government to be convicted. 

5.  The United States is preparing to expand its mission in Afghanistan, projecting an increased force commitment of between 20,000 and 30,000 soldiers by next summer.  The extra troops are necessary to fight a growing Taliban insurgency centered in the east and south of Afghanistan.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The closing of the Beijing Olympics and Barack Obama’s announcement of his Vice-Presidential candidate have been the two most widely covered stories over the past few days.  Here are a few other important stories from the past week:

1.  Growing instability in Afghanistan: A Taliban attack outside of Kabul, Afghanistan, resulted in the deaths of ten French soldiers.  The attack appeared to be part of a coordinated effort by the Taliban against Nato forces in the country, coinciding with another attack against US forces in the southwestern part of the country.  The attacks highlight the shortage of material and soldiers  in the country.  Attending a memorial service for the soldiers, French President Nicolas Sarkozy asserted that he would continue French involvement in Afghanistan, asserting that it was “essential to the freedom of the world.”  Reflecting growing tensions in the country, the government of Afghanistan on Friday accused Nato of killing 76 civilians, mostly children, during operations against Taliban insurgents.

2. The Crisis in South Ossetia: After negotiating a ceasefire, Russia and the west once again appear unable to resolve their differences over Russian withdrawal.  Russia has rejected Nato’s call for a total withdrawal to pre-crisis positions.  Nato has moved to isolate Russia, and in return Russia has cancelled joint military operations with Nato countries.  The crisis gave new impetus to the United States and Poland to sign a missile defense shield.  Demonstrating the link between international security and global political economy, the crisis also helped to push oil prices higher and marked the beginning of a trend of western investors pulling their money from Russia at a rate not seen since the Russian Ruble crisis of 1998.

3. The Rise of Food Neo-Colonialism: In a report issued on Tuesday, Jacques Dious, director general of the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, warned that the drive for farmland could result in the development of a neo-colonial system for agriculture.  Driven by record high commodity prices, foreign direct investment in farms and agricultural production has grown dramatically over the last couple of years.

4. The Pakistani Presidential Race: After the departure of embattled Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf last week, the struggle to find a new president has begun.  Mohammad Mian Soomro, chair of Pakistan’s Senate, has been named acting President and is heading the search for a new leader.  Asif Ali Zardari, widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, has emerged as the leading candidate from the Pakistan People’s Party, the largest party in the parliament.  

5. Unified European Parliament: After part of the ceiling of the European Parliament in Strasbourg collapsed last week, the Parliament was forced to cancel its monthly trek from Brussels to Strasbourg.  The Parliament traditionally moved to the French city of Strasbourg from Brussels for its monthly meetings, despite the fact that the majority of the Union’s administrative and bureaucratic support—not to mention its most important institutions—are based in Brussels, Belgium.  The move, widely denounced by both the EU’s proponents and opponents—costs an estimated €200 million (($350 million) per year.  It is hoped that the forced relocation of the Parliament may encourage a reconsideration of the monthly move, although French opposition may be hard to overcome.

The Instability of Coalition Politics

The number of governments facing problems of political instability seems to be on the rise.  Yesterday, I mentioned problems facing Indonesia, Zimbabwe, and Turkey as governments in those countries face increasing challenges from opposition groups hoping to secure political power for themselves. 

But other countries are facing similar challenges.  In India, the continuing debate over the status of the country’s nuclear deal with the United States has prompted a minor political crisis, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attempts to keep his fragile coalition together.  Singh’s government is comprised of a coalition of center-left parties.  Earlier this month, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the coalition’s junior member to Singh’s Congress Party of India, withdrew from the coalition over a nuclear deal signed with the United States.  The Communists argued that the deal represented a transfer of India’s sovereignty to the United States opened the way for the further colonization of India’s economy.  A confidence vote by the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian Parliament, is scheduled for Tuesday.  If the government loses the vote, snap elections will be called.

A vote on the nuclear deal, which would see the US sell nuclear fuel and civilian nuclear technology to India, is also scheduled for a vote in the Indian Parliament later this month.  Ironically, the outcome of that vote may be inconsequential for the nuclear deal, as the deal is currently stalled in the US Congress and appears unlike to move forward before the November elections.

The ruling coalition in Belgium is in even worse shape.  On Monday, Prime Minister Yves Leterme resigned.  Leterme took office in March after a nine month political deadlock in which the country officially had no Prime Minister or government.  The crisis sparked by Leterme’s resignation has been called the worst political crisis faced by Belgium in the country’s history.  Strong divisions between Belgium’s Flemish-speaking population in the north and the French-speaking population in the south have intensified in recent years, and it seems difficult to imagine how a new government, which because of Belgium’s electoral system will almost certainly have to develop out of a multi-lingual coalition involving four or more political parties, will be any more stable. 

So why all this political instability?  Certainly the nature of the parliamentary systems in Belgium and India play a role.  It’s widely held that parliamentary systems, particularly when based on proportional representation electoral systems, are inherently less stable than presidential systems based on single-member district electoral systems.  But for every unstable PR-based parliamentary system like Belgium or contemporary India, there is South Africa or historical India, which has the same political system but is far more stable.  Clearly the issues at play must also be important.  The unique status of identity politics in Belgium, given the country’s status as an artificial creation as a buffer zone between major European powers, clearly has an important influence.  Similarly, in India, the debate over the relative influence of the United States in Indian society is a serious one, as many Indian political leaders continue to hold to the tradition of non-alignment and home rule.