An additional risk factor for 2014

Elio Di Rupo’s expression said it all Wednesday, at 16 Rue de la Loi. The Prime Minister had certainly had an emotional day, the start of three weeks which are likely to be highly charged. Nevertheless, his somber tone and serious expression, a little overdone, led us to think that he was not getting much pleasure from the news. Although all the evidence indicates that the King has taken his decision after calm reflection, Di Rupo’s tone was rather forced as he read the passage in his speech evoking the celebratory nature of the 21 July National Holiday. Doubtless, this is because the King’s abdication is not good news for the mainstream political parties.

The reason is simple – Prince Philippe’s personality. It is an understatement that the heir to the throne has never commanded universal support, and this is particularly true among the political classes. In recent years, numbers of elected representatives have expressed private doubts about the personality of the future King. Some say he is not fully prepared for the role; others that he is cruelly lacking in experience, all the more so as his father has never really involved him in his work. There is no need for a reminder that during the 2011 political crisis, there were rumors that the Prince was not kept informed of developments.

Finally, some fear that Philippe’s approach to his role will be very different to Albert’s. More specifically, that he will be more interventionist. These are all reasons to fear for the stability of the institution, and so of the country.

The political parties are concerned that with federal elections looming in 2014 and the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) gaining more than 30% in the polls, the last thing that Belgium needs is an extra destabilizing factor. Making matters worse is the risk that any false move by Philippe, however trivial, could be exploited by Flemish nationalists to call for a weakening of the monarchy, or its suppression. Do we need a reminder that Bart De Wever has already argued for the powers of the King to be cut back, by removing the requirement for his signature on legislation and his role in the formation of the government? And this even though Albert has been politically astute…

Playing for Time

This is why Di Rupo has been hedging his bets recently in relation to the monarchy, which will inevitably be a theme of the 2014 electoral campaign. On the one hand, he has made more progress than any of his predecessors in reforming the monarchy, particularly by tackling its funding. On the other, he has not hesitated to publicly criticize any bad behavior by members of the family, from Prince Laurent to Queen Fabiola. A clear, strong approach – which has been supported by the Palace.

Albert was the first to realize that the survival of the monarchy depended on modernization and greater transparency and in this he has been Di Rupo’s best ally, thus offering an answer to the increasing numbers of people, in Wallonia as well as Flanders, who are now calling openly for the monarchy to be purely a figurehead. He has also avoided giving the N-VA material to work with. On Wednesday evening, the party reacted with a simple press statement, paying a qualified tribute to King Albert, while De Wever refrained from appearing on TV.

But the Prime Minister was also deeply convinced that, in spite of the reforms, the fact of replacing Albert on the throne by Philippe presented a risk, at the very least because it is a change. In addition, the future King is very much less popular than his predecessor – though the same could have been said of his father twenty years ago.

And that is why, even if he denies it, Di Rupo has been watching the clock. When the King warned him of his intentions, he asked him to reflect. Some say that he tried to dissuade him. At the very least, he played for time – perhaps hoping that once the 2014 election was imminent, the opportunity for an abdication would have passed. Sadly, he was dealing with a man who is exhausted, and who no longer has the energy for the stabilizing role that he played during the 541 days of the last political crisis.

So a more uncertain era is dawning. In his heart of hearts, Di Rupo must be telling himself that the mainstream parties did not need this. And the N-VA is still running at over 30%.


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