Fifth column: Who wants the 16?
“The 16” refers to the address Wetstraat 16, the prime minister’s office, as well as the function of prime minister itself. One would think that the 16 was the most coveted of political posts, but that is not the case in Flanders
Does anybody want to be Belgium's prime minister?
In days of yore, this was not an issue. For decades, the Christian-democrats were the largest political force in Flanders, with 30% or more of the vote. Hence, the leader of the Christian-democrats (Wilfried Martens, Jean-Luc Dehaene...) became prime minister, with a federal coalition including either liberals or socialists.
This changed in 1999, when the Christian-democrats had to give up their number one position in Flanders. As the liberals came into power, their leader, Guy Verhofstadt, took up office in the 16. In 2007, Verhofstadt (Open VLD) and Yves Leterme (CD&V) fought out “a battle for the 16” – unusual, as ours is not a presidential system. Even Johan Vande Lanotte, of the relatively small socialist SP.A, called himself a candidate for the 16 at the time.
With the 2014 federal elections looming, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the 16 is not such a hot ticket anymore. Kris Peeters, leader of the Christian-democrats and Flanders’ most popular politician, is “not interested”. In this country, a prime minister does not have more power than a minister-president, he says.
Also, Peeters’ party stands at no more than 17% in the polls, a lot less than N-VA, which is expected to get around 30%. Why then should CD&V take up the office, knowing that it can lead to a reduced popularity?
So all eyes are now on N-VA and its leader, Bart De Wever (pictured). As Flanders’ (and Belgium’s) largest party, they are expected to claim the 16. De Wever, however, is not interested either. He is reluctant to break his promise to stay in Antwerp, where he is mayor. Moreover, he does not believe in “the Belgian construction”.
As prime minister, De Wever would have to make that construction work, though, which is at odds with everything he stands for. N-VA simply does not want to govern Belgium, a paradox that escapes many of its voters.
So, in spite of his dwindling popularity on both sides of the language divide, the current prime minister, Elio Di Rupo (PS), has the best chance at getting the 16 again. If he wants it, that is.
Photo: Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA)