October 14, 2010 § 3 Comments
Who lives there?: Slightly more than 11 million people. Around 60% speak Dutch and are known as the Flemish community, almost all the rest speak French and are known as the Waloon community. In addition there is a small (1%) but vocal German speaking community.
The border with Holland is in the place it is a result of a series of complex medieval trades and land swaps between Dukes loyal to Belgium and Holland respectively. As a result it is exceedingly convoluted with many enclaves on both sides. The border in the town of Baarle-Hertog/Baarle-Nassau is particularly complicated with many individual houses and sides of streets cut in half. It contains tens of enclaves and several double enclaves (a bit of Holland inside a bit of Belgium inside a bit of Holland) – the only other place in the world which has a double enclave involves the UAE and Oman.
How does the system work? (the theory): Belgium is a constitutional monarchy where the King is head of state but has only ceremonial powers.
To sate the need for the different groups that make up Belgium to preserve their autonomy, Belgium has a fairly complicated system of Government. Government consists of three parts. The first is the federal government. They control foreign policy, justice, defence, federal police, social security, nuclear energy, the overall finances of the country and the state run companies.
Second come the three language communities: Flemish, French and German. They control language policy, education, culture, health and social welfare:
Finally there are the three regions: the Flemish Region, the Waloon Region and the Brussels Capital region. The regions have power over the local economy, employment, agriculture, water policy, housing, public works, energy, transport, the environment, town and country planning, nature conservation, and local government:
The Flemish region and the Flemish community have merged. Even so, there are six different organisations with overlapping authority over Belgium. Each of these organisations elects a parliament (the Federal level elects two) and a Prime Minster who is in charge of the executive. All elections in Belgium are by either open list d’Hondt PR using the 11 provinces as constituencies (except for the Waloon Parliament which use arrondisments and constituencies) or appointment by another body.
At the federal level you have a powerful lower house known as the Chamber of Representatives and a much less powerful upper house, the Senate. The Chamber of Representatives directly elects all 150 members. It also elects the federal Prime Minister and the federal cabinet. The cabinet has 15 members at least 7 of whom must be French speaking and 7 Dutch speaking. They serve 4 year terms, unless the Prime Minister asks to dissolve parliament early.
The Senate consists of 71 members: 40 directly elected members, 21 members elected by the community parliaments (10 by the French community, 10 by the Flemish community and 1 by the German community), and 10 members elected by their fellow senators (6 by Dutch speaking members and 4 by French speaking members). In addition all the adult children of the King are automatically made senators – by convention they do not vote, although they have the power to do so. Senate terms are for four years.
All the regional parliaments are directly elected. The Flemish regional parliament has 124 members, the Waloon Parliament 75 and the Brussels Parliament 89 divided into two groups: a 72 strong French group and a 17 strong Dutch Group. All terms are five years.
There are direct elections to the German Community Parliament (25 members). The Flemish Regional Parliament is also the Flemish Community Parliament. The French Community Parliament is made up of all the members of the Waloon Parliament with the exception of those elected from the German speaking arrondisments and with the addition of 17 (internally elected) of the French group in the Brussels Parliament. All terms are five years.
Local Government is decided by the regions but differences are largely cosmetic between regions. Each region is divided into provinces. Provinces have an elected council which chooses an executive committee and a governor. Brussels isn’t in any province and so it’s regional parliament doubles up as a provincial government.
Provinces are divided into arrondisments – a largely judicial division – and these are in turn divided into municipalities. Municipalities have an executive mayor and an elected council. In the Flemish and Brussels regions, the mayor is appointed by the regional government whereas in the Waloon region the Mayor is elected by the municipal council.
How does the system work? (the practice): With a proportional representation system and the political landscape deeply divided along linguistic as well as political lines there is a great deal of coalition building and coalitions tend to be unstable. This leads to frequent snap elections. Parties only stand in their own community areas – deepening divisions along community lines. Moreover with overlapping jurisdictions there are many clashes of mandate, and the constitutional courts are normally busy.
How did we get here?: Belgium enjoyed autonomy first as a grouping of Celtic tribes and later as a series of fiefdoms and dukedoms. Its separate identity further developed when, following 15th century wars, it became the only Spanish territory in northern Europe. It attained independence in 1830. Since then agitation by various groups has led to a series of constitutional reforms. This started in 1860 and ended in 1996 – with the current system.
Who’s in charge?: In early 2010 a political row blew up over the arrondisment of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde. Lying at the heart of every possible political and linguistic division, Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde had been a headache for many decades. In 2003 the constitutional court declared the arrondisment unconstitutional and demanded it be split into two halves along linguistic lines. The Government’s refusal to do so has led to a series of rows and, in 2010, led to the liberal Flemish Open VLD walking out of the Government of Prime Minister Yves Leterme and his centre-right CD&V party.
In the subsequent elections the New Flemish Alliance, who back Flemish succession, won the most seats: 27. The French Socialist party won 26, the French liberal Reform Movement cane third with 18, and the CD&F came fourth with 17.
Several other parties won seats: the Flemish left-wing Socialist Party – differently won 13, the Open VLD won 13, the Flemish nationalist Flemish Interest won 12, the French centre-right Humanist Democratic Centre won 9, the French speaking Greens won 8 and the Dutch speaking Greens won 5. Finally two centre-right independents were elected, one French, one Dutch.
After nearly 6 months no party has yet managed to form a government although eight parties have been asked. In the meantime Leterme continues as interim PM. This state of affairs is not uncommon, it has previously taken nine months to form a government. It is thought the left has most of the seats and that there isn’t enough cohesion amongst Flemish nationalists to form a Flemish centre-right group to press for Flemish secession. That said, this possibility is not entirely off the table.
The senate elections were held at the same time and gave similar results. As a result the senate is now comprised as follows (majority 35): New Flemish Alliance 14, Socialist Party 12, Reform Movement 8, Socialist Party – differently 7, CD&V 7, Open VLD 6, Flemish Interest 5, Ecolo 5, Humanist Democratic Centre 3, Groen 2, independent 2, (princes 3).
Regional elections were last held in 2009 in happier times for the CD&V, it lead to centre-right coalitions in all the Flemish areas and centre-left coalitions everywhere else. Here are the results (the largest party appointed the Prime Minister in every case):
Flemish Parliament (majority 62): CD&V 31, Flemish Interest 21, Open VLD 21, Socialist Party – Differently 19, New Flemish Alliance 16, Ind 8, Greens 7, Union of Francophones 1.
Waloon Parliament (majority 36): Socialist Party 29, Reformist Movement 19, Greens 14, Humanist Democratic Centre 13.
Brussels Regional Parliament (majority 45): Reformist Movement 24, Socialist Party 21, Greens (French) 16, Humanist Democratic Centre 11, Open VLD 4, Socialist Party- Differently 4, Flemish Interest 3, CD&V 3, Greens (Dutch) 2, New Flemish Alliance 1.
German Community Parliament (majority 13): Christian Social Party (centre right) 7, Socialist Party 5, Party for Freedom and Progress (right) 4, Pro DG (German nationalist) 4, Greens (French) 3, Vivant (bilingual liberals) 2.
As a result the French Community Parliament (majority 47) is: Socialist Party 35, Reformist Movement 25, Greens 18, Humanist Democratic Centre 16 .
Outside of parliament there are a number of active pressure groups. Most influential is a powerful Trade Union movement which takes an unusual interest in social, as well as economic, issues.
What does it look like?: 93% of people live in cities, the rest is very flat.
What are the issues?: The future of Belgium is the biggest issue. Many in the more prosperous Flemish community see the Waloon community as a dead weight and want independence and the separation of the country. The Waloons think this would be a disaster and would lead to mass unemployment in the south. The movement for Flemish independence has gathered steam recently and separatists may now even be able to form a coalition government – although it looks like that possibility is fading.
Other issues involve Belgium role in the world – including towards its former colonies Rwanda and Congo. Several Belgian paratroopers lost their lives in the Rwanda genocide, and there is also a feeling that the Government could have done more to prevent the bloodshed. It is still occasionally a live political issue.
A good source of impartial information is: Belgium has a healthy free press. Flanders News is in English and doesn’t have as much of a Flanders bias as the name would suggest.
A good book is: For a long time there weren’t many good books on Belgian politics in English, and the ones there were tended to concentrate on ancient history as opposed to the current situation. However to redress that need two new books have just been published: The Politics of Belgium: Governing a Divided Society (Comparative Government and Politics) and Institutions of Policy under bipolar and centrifugal federalism.
When are the next elections?: Regional and Federal elections are due in 2014 – if Belgium lasts that long.