Following a period of reflection since the justice minister stepped down last Friday, the King has now appointed two liberals to try to bring together a government coalition and avoid early elections.
Yesterday evening the king announced he was giving Patrick Dewael (Open VLD) and Sabine Laruelle (MR), respectively speaker of the federal parliament and president of the Senate, to “make the necessary political contacts to permit the installation of a fully-fledged government,” according to a communique from the royal palace.
According to reports, the name of Dewael had been circulating for some time. He is an elder statesman of his party, a former Flemish minister-president, federal home affairs minister and three-time speaker of the parliament.
Laruelle was less expected, but her appointment was welcomed as the first time a woman has been entrusted with such a role.
But what a role. Geens last week stepped down over the apparent impasse created by the refusal of the French-speaking socialist PS to countenance taking part in a coalition that included the Flemish nationalist N-VA.
That condition remains, as does the strong pressure for any federal government to reflect the balance between Flemish and French-speaking interests. The coalition most acceptable to the PS would see the Flemish parties in the minority, which for the CD&V at least, is a barrier to agreement.
The appointment took place just after the king had spent an hour in discussion with Gweldolyn Rutten, president of Open VLD. Her party has not yet had its chance in attempts to build a coalition, though MR has had two.
It is likely that the choice of Dewael and Laruelle has more to do with their personal stature in the eyes of the political world than their political affiliation, however. And the feeling is widespread that if this attempt does not succeed – the wording of the king’s announcement is more imperative than any so far – there may be no alternative but to call new elections.
Forewarned is forearmed, and whether by coincidence or not, news broke today that two parties, Vlaams Belang and N-VA, have been spending heavily in February on sponsored posts on Facebook. According to Facebook’s own figures consulted via its Ad Library, N-VA spent €17,906 between 12 and 18 February, while Vlaams Belang spent €14,182 over the same period.