The sudden departure of Bart Somers (Open Vld) as deputy prime minister from the Flemish government raises many questions. Lead commentator Bart Eeckhout already provides some answers.
Good morning Bart, do we know anything more about that surprising exit?
“It is certainly not just a surprise for us. Somers says that he had already made the decision in the summer, but otherwise very few people were aware that this was going to happen now. In The appointment Paul Van Tigchelt, who had only been federal deputy prime minister for Open Vld for a few weeks, admitted that he had known “for a few days” that this was coming. I suspect that the same applies to a small party leadership, with Chairman Ongena and Prime Minister De Croo present. There was no mention of this at the Liberal party office yesterday morning, which says something about the confidence the party leadership has in its own people to keep a secret. But also in the Flemish government, Prime Minister Jan Jambon (N-VA) & co actually knew nothing about it. The resignation also takes effect immediately: Somers returns to Mechelen, where he will again take up the mandate of mayor. In principle, he can also take up his seat in the Flemish Parliament, which would actually eliminate chairman Tom Ongena from the hemisphere as successor, although I am not sure whether he will do that. This morning Somers will provide more explanation in Mechelen.”
Why does Somers do this?
“In a short statement on X/Twitter, Somers indicates that he wants to choose “Mechelen”. He would like to become mayor of the city again in 2024 and leave “no misunderstanding” about that preference, and therefore go to the voters without another mandate. In addition, he says he will pave the way for innovation in his party. He explicitly expresses the hope that his successor will belong to the ‘new generation’ at Open Vld.
“The timing continues to raise many questions. I want to be gentle with the person Bart Somers. In his statement he refers to “turbulent times” in politics, suggesting that he is really tired and can no longer see himself functioning under the high pressure of national politics. He had a somewhat special role in the Flemish government: as Minister of Society, he tried to soften the sometimes harsh flow in socio-cultural dossiers, which was not always successful and was often frustrating. As the figurehead of the party, the decline of Open Vld naturally also reflected on him, with all the pressure and criticism that entailed. Somers, for example, is the man who launched Sihame El Kaouakibi into politics, a move that turned out quite wrong and was heavily blamed for him by fellow party members.
“Somers adds himself to a gradually impressive line of MPs with some fame who are leaving national politics in disappointment. That list goes from John Crombez (Vooruit) over Valerie Van Peel (N-VA) to Björn Rzoska or Kristof Calvo (Groen). Many of them remain active locally, because they are tired of the aggressive spectacle of national politics and hope to be able to achieve more at the local level. But it is unprecedented for a minister to resign during the period of government for that reason to return to local politics.
Why this sudden choice for local politics?
“In the past it has sometimes happened that ministers resigned from the government after local elections to become mayor, but giving up a ministership to launch yourself for an upcoming local election is quite unique.
“I wonder if Somers would make this movement as urgent without a recent poll The newspapaer. This showed that he remained the most popular politician in his own city, but that his open city list was declining considerably. There is also work to be done in Mechelen to keep the mayor’s mandate. Somers remembers his unpleasant experience from 2006. During the local elections in 2000, he had risen to the mayoralty as a young politician, but in 2003, against previous promises, he moved to the Flemish level to become Prime Minister. This did not suit him well and was also resented in the city. Only by forming a cartel with the Greens could the sash be retained in 2006. Somers wants to avoid the Mechelaar punishing him again because he left for the Flemish government. That is why he is now making the opposite movement.”
What should happen next with the Flemish government?
“The timing couldn’t be worse for the government. The Jambon government is struggling to find a compromise on the nitrogen dossier. Somers himself often positioned himself as a mediator between coalition partners N-VA and CD&V. In that role he will be sorely missed in the coalition at this crucial time. In Terzake, N-VA chairman Bart De Wever was visibly surprised and disappointed about the sudden departure of a coalition partner. It remains to be seen who will be Somers’ successor in the government, but Open Vld is in danger of missing a lot of experience and knowledge in the majority, now that only Lydia Peeters and a newcomer remain in the government.
Is this good or bad news for Open Vld?
“It is a commotion again in a party that has no shortage of commotion. Open Vld will have the opportunity to give the innovation a new face, but there does not seem to be a major strategy. It is a renewal forced by circumstances. Among the liberals, there seems to be a kind of retreat behind the dikes: everyone is making up their own bills. Strong names retreat to their city or municipality to at least retain the mayorship there for themselves. Think of Gwendolyn Rutten in Aarschot or Bart Tommelein in Ostend. In the meantime, it is all hands on deck for the national elections – the party is doing really badly in the polls – but there are few ‘hands’ left. As if those national elections are being given up in advance. This is also not a pleasant start for the younger generation who are now getting the chance.”