The prime minister’s office is occupied by a caretaker. She has little power. Lawmakers show up to work, but the Parliament doesn’t pass ambitious legislation. Civil servants keep their heads down. Last year’s budget serves as this year’s guide. Washington is consumed by the impeachment battle, but in Belgium there isn’t anyone worth impeaching.
Some Belgians say they haven’t even noticed a difference. The trains keep running — just as tardy as usual. Folks who know something about balance sheets, though, say the country is putting off important decisions and will suffer in the long run.
“If you’re an ordinary citizen, it would be very difficult to see that we have a caretaker government right now,” said Carl Devos, a professor of political science at Ghent University. “What is costing us money are problems that can’t be dealt with because we have no government,” including a budget deficit and a flagging pension system, he said.
In parliamentary democracies, it isn’t unusual for coalitions to take a little time to come together after elections. And in a fragmented, anti-establishment era, caretakers seem to be popping up everywhere. Spanish leaders failed to form a coalition after April elections, so they had to have new elections in November. Austria has been led by a caretaker since June. Israelis are facing their third election in less than a year.
But Belgium is particularly molasses-slow. The current government-free period still isn’t close to its previous record, which stretched 541 days, from 2010 until 2011.
The situation is complicated by the country’s messy politics, where the Dutch-speaking north is moving to the right, the French-speaking south is moving to the left, and there is little room in the middle for compromise.
The country’s (caretaker) prime minister, Sophie Wilmès, ascended, ever so slightly, to her current post in October, when her predecessor, Charles Michel, took a new job as the president of the European Council. Michel, who had been Belgian prime minister since 2014, largely lost his power in December last year, after one of his coalition partners pulled out following a dispute about immigration.
Wilmès — Belgium’s first female prime minister — took office with a ringing statement of limited ambition: “I will do everything to ensure, in stability, the continuity of current affairs,” she wrote on Twitter.
One recent opinion poll published by the RTL broadcaster found 80 percent of Belgians said it was “shameful” not to have a government. But there are few outward signs of discontent. During previous stretches when Belgian leaders struggled to form a coalition, frustrated Belgians hung up their country’s black, gold and red flag as a sign of protest. This time there is no such complaint.
And some people have come to like caretaker governments. One columnist in De Standaard, a prominent Dutch-language newspaper, wrote last week in admiration of Austrian caretaker chancellor Brigitte Bierlein, for her apolitical approach to her job, which she is holding as other Austrian leaders continue their coalition negotiations.
“Bierlein simply does the work for which she was hired,” instead of campaigning, wrote Caroline de Gruyter, noting that the popularity of a previous Belgian prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, actually went up once he turned into a caretaker.
In Belgium’s Parliament, Wilmès’s centrist Reformist Movement party commands just 14 of 63 seats, meaning she can pass no legislation. Even during Belgium’s record-breaking stretch without a government nearly a decade ago, the caretakers had a bit more power, since they could cobble together a majority in Parliament when they needed it. Caretaker leaders in 2011 committed Belgium’s military to taking part in the NATO operation against Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi — essentially sending their troops to war even though they were still busy negotiating a ruling coalition.
This time, powerless means powerless. All of Belgium’s traditional centrist parties lost seats in the May elections, and parties at the fringe gained, reflecting a global rise in skepticism toward longtime political elites.
Opinion polls suggest that if elections were held again today, a Dutch-speaking far-right party and a French-speaking far-left party would improve on their results from May.
Indeed, voters tend to see outsider politicians — not governments run by caretakers — as the answer to the problem with politics. But in parliamentary systems like Belgium’s, voting for candidates from nontraditional parties can increase the likelihood of caretaker governments, and continuation of the status quo.
Some frustrated political analysts want Belgian politicians to get to politicking.
“We had an election campaign where a lot of political parties said we had a lot of serious, urgent problems that needed to be dealt with. Climate, societal issues, poverty, getting the employment rate up in Belgium,” said Dave Sinardet, a professor of political science at the Free University of Brussels. “None of these things can be dealt with for the moment.”
Quentin Ariès contributed to this report.