SOPHIE WILMES BECOMES FIRST FEMALE PRIME MINISTER OF BELGIUM
Belgium’s first female prime minister in its 189-year history has taken office, after Sophie Wilmès was named as the head of the country’s next caretaker government.
Wilmès succeeds the liberal leader Charles Michel, who will become president of the European council on 1 December. Her role has been described as a poisoned chalice, as linguistically divided parties struggle to form a government.
Belgium has had a caretaker government since December last year when Michel’s four-party coalition collapsed as the Flemish nationalists quit in protest at a UN migration pact.
Elections in late May have so far failed to yield a fresh government and reinforced the country’s political divide, with the wealthier Dutch-speaking Flemish north voting in large numbers for the nationalist right, while the francophone south handed victory to traditional socialists.
Describing her appointment as a “great honour and a great responsibility”, Wilmès acknowledged leading a caretaker government “does not leave us with much opportunity to act” and urged the formation of a fully fledged government as soon as possible.
Belgium went 541 days without a government in 2010-11, a world record for a country in peacetime. Northern Ireland’s Stormont assembly and executive, which has not sat for more than 1,000 days, overtook the Belgian total in August 2018, but is not considered eligible for the record since laws can still be passed at Westminster.
Wilmès, 44, has had a rapid rise in politics since joining Belgium’s federal government in 2015 as budget minister. Born in Brussels to a political family, she began her political career as a local councillor in the Belgian capital. Wilmès was later elected to local government in Rhode Saint-Genèse (Sint-Genesius-Rode), one of six Flemish communes encircling Brussels that have large French-speaking minorities, leading to frequent disputes over language rights.
Her task as prime minister is complicated by being a member of the francophone liberal party, which lost ground in the May elections and is only the fourth-largest party.
Wilmès is seen as an ally of the outgoing prime minister and has been criticised in the fiscally conservative northern Flanders region for not doing more to deliver a balanced budget.
The Dutch-language daily De Standaard pointed out Wilmès was little known in Flanders, but said she spoke good Dutch and had “a good dose of charisma”.
In a front-page editorial, Le Soir said her nomination was “an elevator to the scaffold”, calling Wilmès a prime minister that hid a political vacuum. While describing her appointment as a big step forward for women in Belgium, the leader writer Béatrice Delvaux accused the country’s politicians of “great hypocrisy”. She pointed out Michel’s government had failed to reach gender parity during its five years in office.