Now that the latest in a line of negotiators has given up the task of seeking the creation of a new government coalition, what options remain?
Koen Geens asked to be relieved of the task on Friday evening on an unexpected visit to the royal palace. The King assented.
King Philippe is now facing a very limited set of options, nine months after the last federal elections. Before making up his mind on how to proceed, he will begin on Monday by taking advice on the choices that lie before him.
The desired option would have been a coalition that included the two largest parties, French-speaking socialists PS and Flemish nationalists N-VA, together with smaller parties.
The grouping, together with the necessary smaller parties, would have given a clear parliamentary majority, as well as fulfilling the Flemish demand that the federal government represent a majority of the voters in Flanders.
But the hopelessness of such a result is what led Koen Geens to throw in the towel. During the past week, PS president Paul Magnette lost no opportunity to rule out a coalition with the N-VA. And Geens (CD&V) would not even explore the possibility of a coalition that excluded N-VA and included his own party.
Now the king faces a choice of three options, according to experts: bring in yet another politician to explore possible pairings; start talks on the creation of an interim government of experts; or take the country once more to the polls in the hope that a new election will break the logjam.
On the first option, the possibilities seem extremely limited. Geens would only consider the purple-yellow option – socialists, liberals, greens, N-VA and CD&V. Some, including the Flemish greens, hold out the possibility of a purple-green coalition, without N-VA and therefore without CD&V, but with the numbers made up by the likes of Défi and/or cdH.
However, even if that group could scratch together a majority in parliament, it would not have one in Flanders, and the numbers of N-VA and Vlaams Belang in the chamber could be enough to make the nation ungovernable.
Speaking on the VRT’s magazine programme Terzake, veteran journalist Rik Van Cauwelaert discussed the expert government option. Forming such a government would not be easy, he said.
“A government of experts would also need to find a majority in the parliament, a task no-one would envy,” he said.
Van Cauwelaert also tackled the option of new elections.
“PS president Paul Magnette said it himself: he is not afraid of elections if they prove necessary. He has clearly said that a number of questions have now to be laid before the voter. What happens with the future of Belgium? The major parties have to come up with an answer to that.
“The parliament can no longer deny the reality,” he went on. “We cannot keep muddling along as we are doing now. This is turning into a painful comedy. At a certain point the larger parties are going to have to come together and admit we’re heading for new elections.”
According to his colleague Ivan De Vadder, speaking on VRT News, that point has already been reached.
“Nobody wants elections, but all of the parties are busy making preparations,” he said.