Politics of Belgium

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Template:Politics of Belgium The Kingdom of Belgium is a sovereign, independent state. It is a constitutional monarchy and a federal state made up of communities and regions.

Contents

Government

Constitution

Main article: Constitution of Belgium.

The Constitution of Belgium was established on February 7 1831. Its first major revision was in 1970 when, in response to a growing civil conflict between the Flemish-speaking and French-speaking communities in Brussels, the Government declared that "the unitary state, its structure and functioning as laid down by law, had become obsolete". The new constitution recognised the existence of regional differences within Belgium, but sought to reconcile these differences through a diffusion of power to the regions. It was last revised on July 14 1993, when the parliament approved a constitutional package creating a federal state. The constitution is the primary source of law and the basis of the political system in Belgium.

Head of state

Main article: King of the Belgians.

As titular head of state, the King plays a ceremonial and symbolic role in the nation. His main political function is to designate a political leader to form a new cabinet after an election or the resignation of a cabinet. In conditions where there is a "constructive vote of no-confidence," the government has to resign and the Lower House of Parliament proposes a new Prime Minister to the King. The King also is seen as playing a symbolic unifying role, representing a common national Belgian identity.

The present monarch, King Albert II, succeeded his brother, King Baudouin, who died July 31, 1993. Albert took the oath of office to become King on August 9, 1993.

Executive

Main article: Belgian federal government.

The executive branch of government consists of ministers and secretaries of state ("junior" ministers or smaller departments) drawn from the political parties which form the government coalition. Formally, the ministers are appointed by the King. The number of ministers is limited to 15, 7 at least from each of the two main communities, and they have no seat in Parliament. The Cabinet is chaired by the Prime Minister. Ministers head executive departments of the government.

The Prime Minister and his ministers administer the government and the various public services. As in the United Kingdom, ministers must defend their policies and performance in person before the Chamber.

Legislature

Main article: Belgian federal parliament.

The Belgian Parliament consists of a Senate and a House of Representatives (French: Chambre des Représentants, Dutch: Kamer van Volksvertegenwoordigers). The House has 150 directly elected members. The Senate has 71 members.

The allocation of powers between the Parliament and the Cabinet is somewhat similar to that of the United States (the Parliament enacts legislation and appropriates funds) but the Belgian Parliament does not have the same degree of independent power that the U.S. Congress has. Members of political parties represented in the government are expected to support all bills presented by the Cabinet. The influence of the main political parties and party leaders is enormous. Many experts estimate that the presidents of the main parties are considerably more powerful than both ordinary ministers and the entire Parliament. For this reason, the Belgian political system is often called a particracy.

The House of Representatives is the "political" chamber that votes on motions of confidence and budgets. The Senate deals with long-term issues and votes on an equal footing with the Chamber on a limited range of matters, including constitutional reform bills and international treaties.

Judiciary

Main article : Courts of Belgium.

Belgium has a civil law system influenced by English constitutional theory. It has a judicial review of legislative acts. It accepts compulsory ICJ jurisdiction, with reservations.

The Supreme Court of Justice (Dutch: Hof van Cassatie, French: Cour de Cassation) is the most important court in Belgium. Judges are appointed for life by the Belgian monarch.

Regional and community governments

The new regional and community councils and governments have jurisdiction over transportation, public works, water policy, cultural matters, education, public health, environment, housing, zoning, and economic and industrial policy. They rely on a system of revenue-sharing for funds. They have the authority to levy taxes (mostly surcharges) and contract loans. Moreover, they have obtained exclusive treaty-making power for those issues coming under their respective jurisdictions. Of total public spending (interest payments not considered), more than 30% is authorized by the regions and communities, although their financing comes for over 80% from national Belgian budgets; at the same time, the national governement controls 100% of social seciurity, and strictly limites the taxation policy by the federalised entities. As a result, Belgian institutions still control over 90% of the effective, global taxation levels on individuals and companies.

The Flemish parties generally favour much larger regional autonomy, including financial autonomy, while the francophone parties generally oppose it. The new government had decided that these matters would not be discussed until after the regional elections of 2004.

Regional executives

Provincial and local government

In addition to three regions and three cultural communities, Belgium is also divided into 10 provinces plus Brussels, and 589 municipalities.

The provincial governments are primarily administrative units and are politically weak. A governor appointed by the King presides over each province. He or she is supported by an elected Provincial Council of 47 to 84 members which sits only 4 weeks a year.

Municipal governments, on the other hand, are vigorous political entities with significant powers and a history of independence dating from medieval times. Many national politicians have a political base in a municipality, often doubling as mayor or alderman in their hometowns.

Electoral system

Several months before an election, each party forms a list of candidates for each district. Parties are allowed to place as many candidates on their "ticket" as there are seats available. The formation of the list is an internal process that varies with each party. The place on the list influences the election of a candidate, but its influence has diminished since the last electoral reform.

Political campaigns in Belgium are relatively short, lasting only about one month, and there are restrictions on the use of billboards. For all of their activities, campaigns included, the political parties have to rely on government subsidies and dues paid by their members. An electoral expenditures law restricts expenditures of political parties during an electoral campaign. Because of the huge public bureaucracy, the high politisation of nominations, and the widely accepted practice that political nominees spend many man-months paid for by all tax-payers for partisan electioneering, this arrangement massively favors the ruling political parties.

Since no single party holds an absolute majority, after the election the strongest party or party family will usually create a coalition with some of the other parties to form the government.

Voting is compulsory in Belgium; more than 90% of the population participates. Belgian voters are given five options when voting. They may:

  • Vote for a list as a whole, thereby showing approval of the order established by the party;
  • Vote for one or more individual candidates, regardless of his/her ranking on the list. This is a "preference vote;".
  • Vote for one or more of the "alternates (substitutes);"
  • Vote for one or more candidates, and one or more alternates; or
  • Vote invalid or blank so no one receives the vote

While there are some options to vote on more than one person, it should be noted that voters cannot vote for candidates of more than one candidate list (party); doing so makes the vote invalid.

Elections for the Federal Parliament are normally held every four years. The regional parliaments are elected every five years, and their elections coincide with those for the European Parliament. Elections for the members of Belgium's municipal and provincial councils are held every six. The next municipal and provincial elections in 2006 and the next general election will be in 2007, the next regional elections are expected in 2009.

Belgium does not have elections similar to presidential elections, where only one person can be elected; rather, seats in the parliament, city council or similar are elected, the occupants of which then vote who gets to be prime minister, mayor, governor, etc. This is probably one of the reasons why Belgium does not have a two-party political system, but that there are more than two influential parties per language region.

See also:

Political parties

Main article: Political parties in Belgium.

In Belgium, all important political parties are either "Dutch-speaking" or "French-speaking" (aside from 1 German speaking party). Political parties are thus organised along community lines, especially for the two main comunities. There are no representative parties active in both communities. Even in Brussels, all parties presenting candidates are either exclusively Flemish or Walloon. As such, the internal organisation of the political parties reflects the fundamentally dual nature of Belgian society. At the same time, this is, for the French-speaking parties, a serious indication against their own claim for a more regional stress in the Belgian federalisation (as opposed to the community-focus favoured by the Flemings).

Another important characteristic of Belgian politics is the highly federal nature of decision making. Important decisions require both a national majority (2/3 for constitional changes), as well as majorities in the two main communities. On top of that, both these comunities can activate 'alarm bell'-procedures, delaying changes. In addition, there are no national parties to speak of. As a result of this, Belgian decision making is slow and expensive. On top, it tends to significantly favour the more conservative parties. Given the historically very high public expenditure, and the very strict central control over taxation, even for revenues going to regions and communities, this tends to make it very difficult for Belgium to follow international trends towards lowering taxation and especially labour charges.

From the creation of the Belgian state in 1830 and throughout most of the 19th century, two political parties dominated Belgian politics: the Catholic Party (Church-oriented and conservative) and the Liberal Party (anti-clerical and progressive). In the late 19th century the Socialist Party arose to represent the emerging industrial working class.

These three groups still dominate Belgian politics, but they have evolved substantially in character.

After World War II, the Catholic (now Christian Democratic) Party severed its formal ties with the Church. It became a mass party of the center, somewhat like a political party in the United States.

In 1968, the Christian Democratic Party, responding to linguistic tensions in the country, divided into two independent parties: the Parti Social Chrétien (PSC) in French-speaking Belgium and the Christelijke Volkspartij (CVP) in Flanders. The two parties pursue the same basic policies but maintain separate organizations. The CVP is the larger of the two, getting more than twice as many votes as the PSC. The chairman of the Flemish catholic party is now Yves Leterme. Deputy Joëlle Milquet is president of the francophone catholic party. Following the 1999 general elections, the CVP and PSC were ousted from office, bringing an end to a 40-year term on the government benches. In 2001, the CVP changed its name to CD&V (Christen-Democratisch en Vlaams). In 2002, the PSC also changed its name to cdH (Centre démocrate humaniste).

The modern Belgian Socialist parties have lost much of their early Marxist trappings. They are now primarily labor-based parties similar to the Social Democratic Party of Germany of Germany and the French Parti Socialiste. The Socialists have been part of several postwar governments and have produced some of the country's most distinguished statesmen. The Socialists also split along linguistic lines in 1978. Caroline Gennez is the current interim head of the Flemish Socialist Party, succeeding Steve Stevaert, and Elio Di Rupo is the current president of the Francophone Socialists. In general, the Walloon Socialists tend to concentrate on domestic issues. In the eighties, the Flemish Socialists focused heavily on international issues, and on security in Europe in particular, where they frequently opposed U.S. policies. However, first with Willy Claes, then Frank Vandenbroucke and with Erik Derycke as Foreign Minister, all three Flemish Socialists, the party made a significant shift to the center adopting less controversial stances on foreign policy issues.

The francophone Socialists are mainly based in the industrial cities of Wallonia (Liège, Charleroi, and Mons). The Flemish Socialists' support is less regionally concentrated. The Flemish Socialists changed their party's name to SP.a (Socialistische Partij anders) in 2002.

The Liberal Parties chiefly appeal to businesspeople, property owners, shopkeepers, and the self-employed, in general. In American terms the Liberals' positions would be considered to reflect an economically conservative ideology.

There are two Liberal parties, formed along linguistic lines: The Flemish Liberals and Democrats (VLD, Vlaamse Liberalen en Democraten) who opened up their ranks to Volksunie defectors some years ago, are the largest political force in Belgium. The VLD is currently headed by Karel De Gucht, member of the Flemish regional parliament. The Party of Reform and Liberty (PRL) on the francophone side is headed by Antoine Duquesne, although Louis Michel, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, is generally considered to be the strong man. The PRL has formed an alliance with the christian-democratic split-off MCC. Brussels-based FDF and is particularly strong in Brussels. This alliance has taken the name Reformist Movement, Mouvement Réformateur.

A postwar phenomenon in Belgium was the emergence of one-issue parties whose only reason for existence was the defense of the cultural, political, and economic interests of one of the linguistic groups or regions of Belgian society. See Flemish movement.

The most militant Flemish regional party in Parliament in the 1950s and 1960s, the Volksunie (VU), once drew nearly one-quarter of Belgium's Dutch-speaking electorate away from the traditional parties. The Volksunie was in the forefront of a successful campaign by the country's Flemish population for cultural and political parity with the nation's long dominant French-speaking population. However, in recent elections the party has suffered severe setbacks. In October 2001 the party disintegrated. The left-liberal wing founded Spirit, while the more traditional Flemish nationalist wing continued under the banner Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (NV-A). A year later, a number of prominent Spirit politicians left the party to join the VLD.

Another special-interest party is the Front Democratique des Bruxellois Francophones (FDF).

The Flemish (Agalev) and francophone (Ecolo) Ecologist parties made their Parliamentary breakthrough in 1981. They focus heavily on environmental issues and are the most consistent critics of U.S. policy. Following significant gains made in the 1999 general elections, the two green parties joined a federal coalition cabinet for the first time in their history, but were ousted after the next elections. In 2003, Agalev became Groen!.

Another one-issue party is the far right Vlaams Blok (Flemish Block) which broke away from the Volksunie in 1976. Originally a mainly Flemish nationalist and republican party, it has developed into the Flemish equivalent of the French National Front, concentrating on immigration positions, often accused of xenophobia and racism. Many studies show that a large minority (if not a majority) of the party's electorate oppose its separatist and republican standpoints. Long dismissed as a "fringe" party by mainstream politicians, the VB shocked observers when in the 1991 elections it posted respectable scores in much of Flanders, but especially in Antwerp, and in the following elections it scored even better. Party President is MEP Frank Vanhecke, but Filip Dewinter is said by many to be the party's real leader. In November of 2004, the party was declared illegal on grounds of racism, and was disbanded. A new party, with basically the same agenda, but trying to leave out the racism, was founded and labeled Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest). As Belgian political parties get government funding if they have a seat in parliament, there was minor row about the funding for the new party in the Flemish Parliament. In fact it was a paradox. The Flemish Parliament statute book doesn’t grant funding to new parties, but on the other hand can withdraw funding from racist parties. Flemish Interest argued that they are the legal successors of Vlaams Blok yet were a different party. The Flemish Parliamentary office which decides such cases, and where Flemish Interest’s political opponents have a majority, decided that Vlaams Blok and Flemish Interest were same party and thus both “guilty of racism”. But strange enough, meanwhile they did not cut the party funding.

Equally opposed to the presence of immigrants is the Front National. Officially, it is a bilingual party, but in reality, it is a purely French-speaking group.

The German speaking parties do not play an important role on federal level. The main German speaking parties are the CSP (christian-democratic), the PFF (liberal), the SP (social-democratic) and PJUPDB (regionalist).

Labor unions

Belgium is a highly unionized country, and organized labor is a powerful influence in politics. About 53% of all private sector and public service employees are labor union members. Not simply a "bread and butter" movement in the American sense, Belgian labor unions take positions on education, public finance, defense spending, environmental protection, women's rights, abortion, and other issues. They also provide a range of services, including the administration of unemployment benefits.

Belgium's three principal trade union organizations are the Confederation of Catholic Labor Unions (CSC/ACV), the Belgian Socialist Confederation of Labor (FGTB/ABVV) and the Confederation of Liberal Labor Unions (CGSLB/ACLVB) which has 213,000 members.

Until the fifties, the FGTB/ABVV was the largest confederation, since then, however, the CSC/ACV has become the leading trade union force. In the most recent works council elections held in 1995, the CSC/ACV garnered close to 52% of the vote, the Socialist confederation obtained 37.7%, and the Liberal confederation 8.2%.

The Confederation of Catholic Labor Unions (CSC/ACV). Organized in 1912, the CSC/ACV rejects the Marxist concept of "class struggle" and seeks to achieve a just social order based on Christian principles. The CSC/ACV is not formally linked to its party political counterparts, the Christian Democratic parties (CVP and PSC), but exercises great influence in their councils.

The CSC/ACV is the leading union in all Flemish provinces, and in Wallonia's Luxembourg province. It has almost equal strength with the socialist confederation in the Brussels area. Its President is currently Luc Cortebeeck.

The Belgian Socialist Confederation of Labor (FGTB/ABVV). The FGTB/ABVV derives from the Socialist Trade Union Movement, established in the late 19th century in Walloon industrial areas, Brussels, and urban areas of Flanders. Today the FGTB/ABVV is the leading union in the Hainaut, Namur, and Liège provinces and matches the CSC/ACV in Brussels. The FGTB/ABVV is led by President Michel Nollet.

Linguistic challenge

Belgium is a country where language is a major political issue. In the 19th and early 20th century, Flemings did not enjoy the same rights as French-speakers, both de facto and de jure. When the country was founded in 1830 under a census voting system, only around 1% of the adult population could vote: nobility, haute-bourgeoisie and higher clerics. A Flemish movement fought peacefully to gain equal rights, and obtained most of it. Minor issues exist also between German speakers and French speakers.

In the third century AD, Germanic Franks migrated into what is now Belgium. The less populated northern areas became Germanic, while in the southern part, where the Roman presence had been much stronger, Latin persisted despite the migrations of the Franks. This linguistic frontier has more or less endured.

The Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and the 19th century further accentuated the North-South division. Francophone Wallonia became an early industrial boom area, affluent and politically dominant. Dutch-speaking Flanders remained agricultural and was economically and politically outdistanced by Brussels and Wallonia. The elite during the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century spoke French, even in the Dutch speaking area. In the 20th century, and particularly after the Second World War, Flanders saw an economic flowering while Wallonia became economically stagnant. As Flemings became more well off and sought a fair and equal share of political power, tensions between the two communities rose.

Linguistic demonstrations in the early sixties led in 1962 to the establishment of a formal linguistic border and elaborate rules were made to protect minorities in linguistically mixed border areas. In 1970, the Constitution was amended. Flemish and francophone cultural councils were established with authority in matters relating to language and culture for the two language groups.

The 1970 constitutional revision did not finally settle the problem, however. A controversial amendment declared that Belgium consists of three economic regions (Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels) each to be granted a significant measure of political autonomy. It was not until 1980, however, before an agreement could be reached on how to implement this new constitutional provision.

In August 1980, the Belgian Parliament passed a devolution bill and amended the Constitution, establishing:

  • A Flemish legislative assembly (council) and Flemish government competent for cultural and regional economic matters;
  • A Francophone community legislative council and government competent for cultural matters; and
  • A Walloon regional legislative assembly and government competent for regional economic matters.

Since 1984 the German language community of Belgium (in the eastern part of Liège Province) has had its own legislative assembly and executive, competent for cultural, language, and educational affairs. Many German-speakers deeply resent being dumped in the Walloon region. They don't feel any affinity with, nor loyalty from the Walloon authorities and political parties. On the contrary, the Walloon governement based in Namur regulalry tries to dictate the German-speakers certain political choices, up to the constitution of the executive for the German-speaking community. Many German-speakers therefore want their land to become a region in its own right, even though it only inhabits about 70,000 people.

In 1988-89 the Constitution was again amended to give additional responsibilities to the regions and communities. The most sweeping change was to devolve responsibilities for educational matters to the communities. Moreover, the regions and communities were provided additional revenue, and Brussels was given its own legislative assembly and executive.

Another important constitutional reform took place in the summer of 1993. It formally changed Belgium from a unitary to a federal state. It also reformed the bicameral parliamentary system and provided for the direct election of the members of the community and regional legislative councils. The bilingual Brabant province was split into separate Flemish Brabant and Walloon Brabant provinces. However, the electoral and judicial districts of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde were not split.

Despite the numerous constitution revisions, the matter is not completely settled. There is still a lot of political tension between French-speakers and Dutch-speakers.

Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde district

Main article: Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde.

This existence of this electoral district was condemned in 2002 as unconstitutional by the Arbitration Court (Dutch: Arbitragehof, French: Cour d'Arbitrage), without however requesting the splitting of the district.

The reasons behind this ruling are as follows: the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde electoral district includes both the bilingual Brussels-Capital region and the unilingual Dutch Halle-Vilvoorde. Brussels is constitutionally bilingual. As such, its voters can choose candidates from both communities for European and national elections. However, because of the amalgated Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde electoral district, that possibility is extended to the French-speakers in the unilingual Halle-Vilvoorde district. That allows French-speaking candidates from Brussels and Wallonia (thus from outside the Flemish region and from outside the constitutional Dutch-only area) to attract votes from outside their electoral district. The current amalgated Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde electoral district breaches both the constitutionally established provincial borders as well as by the borders between the linguistic areas, and between the communities.

At the same time, Flemish candidates have no possibility to attract votes from Flemings living in Wallonia, even not from those in Walloon municipalities with legally established facilities. The court ruled this unconstitutional, to much controversy.

Other

(source: U.S. Department of State, background note: Belgium (http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2874.htm), June 2000)

Suffrage: 18 years of age; universal and compulsory <p>Executive branch:
chief of state: King Albert II (since 9 August 1993); Heir Apparent Prince Phillippe, son of the monarch
head of government: Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt (since 13 July 1999), see also List of Prime Ministers of Belgium.
cabinet: Council of Ministers appointed by the monarch and approved by Parliament
elections: none; the monarch is hereditary; prime minister appointed by the monarch and then approved by Parliament
note: government coalition - VLD, MR, PS, SP.a, SPIRIT <p>Legislative branch: bicameral Parliament consists of a Senate or Senaat in Dutch, Senat in French (71 seats; 40 members are directly elected by popular vote, 31 are indirectly elected; members serve four-year terms) and a Chamber of Deputies or Kamer van Volksvertegenwoordigers in Dutch, Chambre des Representants in French (150 seats; members are directly elected by popular vote on the basis of proportional representation to serve four-year terms)
(The following information is outdated)
elections: Senate and Chamber of Deputies - last held 13 June 1999 (next to be held in NA 2003)
election results: Senate - percent of vote by party - VLD 15.4%, CVP 14.7%, PRL 10.6%, PS 9.7%, VB 9.4%, SP 8.9%, ECOLO 7.4%, AGALEV 7.1%, PSC 6.0%, VU 5.1%; seats by party - VLD 11, CVP 10, PS 10, PRL 9, VB 6, SP 6, ECOLO 6, AGALEV 5, PSC 5, VU 3; Chamber of Deputies - percent of vote by party - VLD 14.3%, CVP 14.1%, PS 10.2%, PRL 10.1%, VB 9.9%, SP 9.5%, ECOLO 7.4%, AGALEV 7.0%, PSC 5.9%, VU 5.6%; seats by party - VLD 23, CVP 22, PS 19, PRL 18, VB 15, SP 14, ECOLO 11, PSC 10, AGALEV 9, VU 8, FN 1
note: as a result of the 1993 constitutional revision that furthered devolution into a federal state, there are now three levels of government (federal, regional, and linguistic community) with a complex division of responsibilities; this reality leaves six governments each with its own legislative assembly; for other acronyms of the listed parties see Political parties and leaders <p>Political parties and leaders: AGALEV (Flemish Greens) (now called GROEN!) [Vera Dua,president]; ECOLO (Francophone Greens) [no president]; Flemish Christian Democrats or CVP (Christian People's Party) (now called CD&V, Christen Democratisch en Vlaams, Christian Democratic and Flemish)[Jo Vandeurzen, president]; Flemish Liberal Democrats or VLD [Karel De Gucht, president]; Flemish Socialist Party or SP (now called SPa) [Caroline Gennez, president]; Francophone Christian Democrats or PSC (Social Christian Party) [Joelle MILQUET, president]; Francophone Democratic Front or FDF [Olivier Maingain, president]; Francophone Liberal Reformation Party or PRL [Daniel Ducarme, president]; Francophone Socialist Party or PS [Elio Di Rupo, president]; National Front or FN [Dr. Feret]; Vlaams Blok or VB (now called Vlaams Belang) [Frank Vanhecke, president]; Volksunie or VU [Geert Bourgeois, president]. VU has fallen apart in two new parties : NVA (Nieuw Vlaamse Alliantie, New Flemish Alliance)[Bart De Wever,president] and SPIRIT [Geert Lambert,president]; other minor parties <p>Political pressure groups and leaders: Christian and Socialist Trade Unions; Federation of Belgian Industries; numerous other associations representing bankers, manufacturers, middle-class artisans, and the legal and medical professions; various organizations represent the cultural interests of Flanders and Wallonia; various peace groups such as the Flemish Action Committee Against Nuclear Weapons and Pax Christi <p>International organization participation: ACCT, AfDB, AsDB, Australia Group, Benelux, BIS, CE, CERN, EAPC, EBRD, ECE, EIB, EMU, ESA, EU, FAO, G-9??, G-10??, IADB, IAEA, IBRD, ICAO, ICC, ICC, ICFTU, ICRM, IDA, IEA, IFAD, IFC, IFRCS, IHO, ILO, IMF, IMO, Inmarsat, Intelsat, Interpol, IOC, IOM, ISO, ITU, NATO, NEA, NSG, OAS(observer), OECD, OPCW, OSCE, PCA, UN, UNCTAD, UNESCO, UNHCR, UNIDO, UNMIK, UNMOGIP, UNMOP, UNRWA, UNTSO, UPU, WADB(nonregional), WCL, WCO, WEU, WHO, WIPO, WMO, WTrO, Zangger Committee

Reference

Much of the material in this article comes from the CIA World Factbook 2000 and the 2003 U.S. Department of State website.

See also

External links

nl:België - Overheid en Politiek

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