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Belgium - General Elections

General elections in Belgium 18th May 2003

General elections in Belgium 18th May 2003

18/05/2003 - Analysis

Belgium is ruled by a government coalition that associates the Reform Movement (MR), the Flemish Liberals and Democrats (VLD), the Walloon Socialist Party (PS), the Flemish Socialist Party (SP.A) and the finally the ecologists of Ecolo (Walloons) and Agalev (Flemish). The Prime Minister (VLD) of this multicoloured coalition, Guy Verhofstadt, called general elections for 18th May, one month ahead of the date originally planned. "I think that this date is better for the electorate than 15th June when there are school exams and people are preparing to go on holiday," he said as a justification for this change of date. By holding the elections in May the Prime Minister hopes that the new government will be formed before the summer.

The Belgian Political System

The Belgian political system is founded on what is called "pilarisation". The political parties developed within the kingdom, emerging from internal rifts in society: the first from religious differences Church/State, the following from regional rifts that brought Walloons and Flemish into opposition and finally from social differences that opposed work and capital, workers and company heads. The political parties that were born of these rifts comprised true entities within Belgian society; many organisations (schools, insurance companies etc) revolved around each party taking care of the party members as well as their families almost from birth to the day they died. Hence in exchange for their loyalty the members of these organisations had access to jobs, housing or diverse other social advantages. For their part the leaders of the different political movements distributed the positions available within the public administrations equitably.

This system worked very well until the end of the 1970's. In the '80's the political outlook underwent reconstruction; two new political trends emerged: the ecologist movements (Ecolo and Agalev) and those on the extreme right (Vlaams Blok and Front National). These parties have been very successful over the last twenty years. After having been dominated by the Socialists and Christian Democrats for many years - from after the War to the '70's - Belgian political life has experienced a rise in the regional parties over the last few years (Volksunie and Vlaams Blok in Flanders, the Democratic Front of French speaking Brussels and the Walloon Assembly in Wallonia as well as Brussels Capital). Over the last two years the extreme rightwing (Vlaams Blok) and ecologist (Ecolo and Agalev) movements have made a break through. Whilst the Socialist and Christian Democrat Parties who attracted most of the electorate in the post war years, now only rally a third of the Belgian population.

Since the '70's Belgium has had no national political parties. In Wallonia there are French speaking parties, in Flanders, Flemish speaking parties, with the Flemish and French speakers only uniting in the Brussels region with a movement called Brussels Capital. Each party's results are therefore calculated within each of the regions. We should point out that the German speaking community recently demanded the guarantee of being represented by at least two MP's in the Federal Parliament, saying that they are the only community in Belgium not to have constitutional autonomy. The German speakers are therefore demanding the creation of a new region along the lines of Brussels Capital.

Several constitutional reforms (1970, 1980, 1988-1989, 1993 and 2001) transformed Belgium into a Federal State. The country's regions (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels Capital) and the linguistic communities were granted new economic and cultural competence. In order to "rationalise the system that had been established by previous State reforms" the government decided to start the revision of several paragraphs in the Constitution during the next term of office. Senate should therefore lose most of its legislative powers to become, according to the Prime Minister, "the place where communities and regions that go to form Belgium meet." The Upper Chamber that comprises 70 members appointed by the French and Flemish speaking Parliaments would no longer have any political control over the government and its legislative role would essentially be reduced to constitutional questions and those relating to the monarchy.

The general elections take place very four years with votes cast according to a system of integral proportional representation according to the highest average (Hondt method).

Eleven political movements are represented in the present Belgian Federal Parliament:

The Flemish Liberals and Democrats (VLD), Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt's party;

The Flemish Christian Democrat Party (CD&V for Christen democratisch en Vlaams), former Flemish Christian popular party (CVP), former Prime Minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene's movement;

The Socialist Party (SP.A for Sociaal Progressif. Alternatif), a Flemish Social Democrat Party, former Socialist Party (SP);

the Vlaams Blok (VB), Flemish extreme rightwing movement led by Filip Dewinter ;

Agalev (Anders Gaan Leven, Vivre autrement), Flemish ecologist party;

Spirit (Social, progressif, internationaal, regionalistisch, integraal democratisch en toekomstgericht), a movement that emerged after the dissolution of the Volksunie a regional Flemish party on 19th September 2001;

The Social Party (PS), a Walloon Social Democrat movement;

The Liberal Reform Party (PRL), a liberal Walloon party that turned into the Reform Movement (MR) ;

Ecolo (Ecologistes confédérés pour l'organisation de luttes originales), a Walloon ecologist movement created in 1980;

The Social Christian Party (PSC), Walloon Christian Democrat party that recently turned into the Humanist Democrat Centre (CDH) ;

The National Front (FN), Walloon movement, extreme rightwing created in 1985 by Daniel Féret.

The electoral stakes

For the Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt's Flemish Liberal Democrats (VLD), the main stake of these general elections is to maintain their position as the leading political movement in Flanders ahead of the Flemish Christian Democrat Party (CD&V). In Wallonia, the main electoral battle will bring the Reform Movement (MR) (movement of Foreign Minister Louis Michel, Home Secretary Antoine Duquesne and Finance Minister Didier Reynders) and the Social Party (PS) into a confrontation with the Humanist Democrat Centre (CDH).

Over the last few months the Flemish political scene has undergone some major changes. The Socialist Party (SP) changed its name to become the Alternative Socialist Party (SP.A, the full stop that separates the SP from the A was introduced on the request of the water manufacturer Spa, a registered trademark) and the Christian Popular Party (CVP) was changed into the Flemish Christian Democrat Party (CD&V), that asserts its Flemish identity, increasingly distancing itself from the Social Christians. In addition to this Johan Van Hecke, former president of the Christian Popular Party created a new movement: New Christian Democracy (NCD).

As far as the regionalists are concerned many MP's of the Volksunie, including the party's president Geert Bourgeois, are against the government's project to reform the State, believing that this is too biased in favour of the French speakers. Internal tension finally caused the party's break-up. During a referendum organised on 15th and 16th September 2001, 47% of the members chose to support President Geert Bourgeois' radical nationalist faction against 23% who said they were in favour of the reformists led by two Flemish government ministers (and former presidents of the Volksunie) Bert Anciaux and Paul Van Grembergen. 30% of the party members said they were in favour of a quelling of tension inn order to rise above the party's internal conflict. The Volksunie was disbanded on 19th September 2001 giving rise to two new political movements: Spirit (Social, progressif, internationaal, regionalistisch, integraal democratisch en toekomstgericht), led by Annemie Van de Casteele, and the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), chaired by Geert Bourgeois.

On the French side the Socialist Party (PS) and the Ecolo Greens formed an alliance last September with a common government programme entitled "Convergence on the Left". The socialists and the ecologists would like to strengthen the Left's electoral influence in the face of the Reform Movement (MR), a liberal party, and the right wing opposition of the Humanist Democrat Centre (CDH).

But the real stake in these general elections, and that includes the entire political community in Belgium and in particular the Flemish movements, is to block any new progress that might be made by Vlaams Blok in Flanders, a region that holds 60% of the Belgian population. In March, Anvers, which is the country's second biggest town, was hit by a financial scandal that involved three civil servants who were suspected of having dipping into the cash of the town's associations in order to cover their own personal expenses. This crisis ended in the resignation of the Mayor Léona Detiège (Flemish Socialist Party, SP.A) along with two of her socialist town councillors as well as Liberals, Christian Democrats and Ecologists who had links with the socialists in the town council. Anvers is well known for being the bastion of the extreme rightwing party Vlaams Blok where it won 33% of the vote in the local elections in 2000, occupying 20 of the 55 seats on the town council. After the last election the political parties created a town coalition to block out the extremist party. The Vlaams Blok won 9.87% of the vote in the last general elections on 13th June 1999 and 15.54% of the vote in the Flemish regional council elections the same year (at that election the Vlaams Blok won more votes than the Socialist Party for the very first time). The Anvers financial scandal could swing the balance in favour of the Vlaams Blok that is standing as the only "clean" political party in Belgium; it is focussing its campaign on its exclusion from the town council whilst in fact it is the town's leading party. On 31st March the political parties, except for the extremist movement managed to agree on the appointment of Patrick Janssens (Socialist Party) as mayor of Anvers; the Flemish Liberals and Democrats accepted this appointment in exchange for the creation of an "integrity bureau" that is responsible for managing the town correctly.

Finally it should be noted that on 26th February the Appeal Court in Brussels declared itself incompetent to provide a verdict on the possible racist nature of the Vlaams Blok; the extremist movement had had a writ issued against it by three associations who managed the state subsidies that the party receives. The Equality Opportunities Centre and the Human Rights' League presented texts to the court that had been published by the Vlaams Blok encouraging the establishment of a separate teaching system for Muslim children and a reduction in unemployment benefit for people who did not have Belgian nationality. However since the court declared itself incompetent this enabled the Vlaams Blok to come out victorious and above all, the risk of being deprived of its annual state financing of 4 million euros was pushed out of the way.

On 18th May Belgians will also vote for their regional and "community" representatives. In addition to this the Senators will be appointed by the French and Flemish speaking Parliaments. As far as the general elections are concerned the deadline for declaring candidatures to stand on 18th May was finally closed on 1st May. The principal of parity has been made obligatory in this election: all the lists will therefore have to include as many men as women; both sexes must be represented in the first three positions in each. In addition to this electoral constituencies will be matched across the country but within the provincial boundaries, which will rock voting habits in the provinces of Hainaut and Liège which have been divided until now into three distinct departments. Finally we should remember that it is obligatory to vote in Belgium.

Reminder of the general election results on 13th June 1999:

Participation : 85% (the vote is obligatory in Belgium)

Source : Agence France Presse
Publishing Director: Pascale JOANNIN
The authors
Corinne Deloy
Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).
Fondation Robert Schuman
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