Politics of Belgium
As titular head of state, the King plays a ceremonial and symbolic role in the nation. A main political function is to designate a political leader to attempt 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 Belgian Parliament consists of a Senate and a House of Representatives (the Chamber). The House has 150 directly elected members. The Senate has 71 members. The executive branch of the government consists of ministers and secretaries of state (junior ministers) 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, and they have no seat in Parliament. The Cabinet is chaired by the Prime Minister. Ministers head executive departments of the government.
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 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 range of matters, including constitutional reform bills and international treaties.
The Prime Minister and his ministers administer the government and the various public services. As in Great Britain, ministers must defend their policies and performance in person before the Chamber.
The Cabinet and the Ministries
At the federal level, executive power is wielded by the Cabinet. The Prime Minister is President of the Cabinet. Each minister heads a governmental department. The Cabinet reflects the weight of political parties that constitute the current governing coalition for the Chamber. No single party or party family across linguistic lines holds an absolute majority of seats in Parliament. The present Cabinet, the Guy Verhofstadt Cabinet, consists of the following members of the Flemish Liberal Party (VLD), the francophone Liberal Party (MR), the francophone Socialist Party (PS), the Flemish Socialist Party (SP.a) and its ally, SPIRIT.
Principal Government Officials (protocol ranking)
- Prime Minister--Guy Verhofstadt (VLD)
- Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Justice -- Laurette Onkelinx (PS)
- Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs -- Louis Michel (MR)
- Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Budget and Public Enterprises -- Johan Vande Lanotte (SP.a)
- Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Interior -- Patrick Dewael (VLD)
- Minister of Employment and Pensions -- Frank Vandenbroucke (SP.a)
- Minister of Defense -- André Flahaut (PS)
- Minister of Developement Cooperation -- Marc Verwilghen (VLD)
- Minister of Finance -- Didier Reynders (MR)
- Minister of Social Affairs and Public Health -- Rudy Demotte (PS)
- Minister of Economy, Energy, Foreign Trade and Science Policy -- Fientje Moerman (VLD)
- Minister of Mobility and Social Economy -- Bert Anciaux (Spirit (political party))
- Minister of Civil Service Affairs, Social Integration and City Policy -- Marie Arena (PS)
- Minister of Middle Classes and Agriculture -- Sabine Laruelle (MR)
- Minister of Environment, Consumer Interests and Sustainable Development -- Freya Van Den Bossche (SP.a)
- State Secretary for State Informatisation, attached to the Minister of Budget and Public Enterprises -- Peter Vanvelthoven (SP.a)
- State Secretary for European Affairs, attached to the Minister of Foreign Affairs -- Jacques Simonet (MR)
- State Secretary for Modernisation of Finance and the Battle against Fiscal Fraud, attached to the Minister of Finance -- Hervé Jamar (MR)
- State Secretary for Labour Organisation and Well-being at Work, attached to the Minister of Employment and Pensions -- Anissa Temsamani (SP.a)
- State Secretary for Family and Handicapped Persons, attached to the Minister of Social Affairs and Public Health -- Isabelle Simonis (PS)
- State Secretary for Administrative Simplicifation, attached to the Prime Minister -- Vincent Van Quickenborne (VLD)
Ambassador to the United Nations--Jean De Ruyt
The Electoral System
The number of seats in the Chamber is constitutionally set at 150 elected from 20 electoral districts. Each district is given a number of seats proportional to its population (not number of voters) ranging from 4 for the Luxembourg district to 22 for Brussels. The districts are divided along linguistic lines: 10 Flemish, 9 Walloon, and the bilingual district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde. Eligibility requirements for the Chamber are a minimum age of 21, citizenship, and residency in Belgium. All districts have an electoral threshold of 5%, except for Brussles-Halle-Vilvoorde, Walloon Brabant and Leuven.
The Senate consists of 71 seats. For electoral purposes Senators are divided into three categories: directly elected; appointed by the community assemblies; and co-opted Senators. For the election of the 25 Flemish and 15 francophone directly elected Senators, the country is divided into three electoral districts. Of the Senators representing the communities, 10 are elected by the Flemish Council, 10 by the French Council, and 1 by the German-language Council.
The remaining category, the co-opted Senators, consists of 10 representatives elected by the first two groups of Senators. Eligibility requirements for the Senate are identical to those for the Chamber.
In Belgium, there are no "national" parties operating on both sides of the linguistic border. Consequently, elections are a contest among Flemish parties on one side and Francophone parties on the other. 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 deminished 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.
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 (stubstitutes);"
- Vote for one or more candidates, and one or more alternates or
- Vote invalid or blank so no one receives the vote
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 regional elections are expected in 2004, the next municipal and provincial elections in 2006 and the next general election will be in 2007.
The Lower House is officially called Chambre des Représentants (in French) or Kamer van Volksvertegenwoordigers (in Dutch). In English, it is often called the Chamber of Deputies or the House of Representatives.
The major parties in the Lower House are the Flemish Liberal Party (VLD) and the francophonse Socialist Party, both having 25 seats; the francophone liberal party (MR), 24 seats; the alliance between the Flemish social democratic party (SP.a) and the Social Liberal SPIRIT, 23 seats; the Flemish Christian democratic Party (CD&V), 21 seats; and the Flemish far right party Vlaams Blok.
The Princes and Princesses of the royal line are full members of the Senate: Prince Philippe, Princess Astrid and Prince Laurent sit in the Senate. The President of the Senate is Armand De Decker (PRL).
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 party is Yves Leterme. Deputy Joelle Milquet is president of the francophone 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 German Social Democratic Party and the French Socialist Party. 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. Steve Stevaert is head of the Flemish Socialist Party and Elio Di Rupo is 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 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.
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.
Another one-issue party is the far right Vlaams Blok (VB--Flemish Block) which broke away from the Volksunie in 1976. Originally a mainly Flemish regionalist and republican party, it has developed into the Flemish equivalent of the French National Front, concentrating on immigration positions, often tinged with xenophobia and racism. Many studies shows that a major party (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 scores even better. Party President is Euro-MP Frank Vanhecke, but Filip Dewinter is said by many to be the party's real leader.
Equally opposed to the presence of immigrants is the Front National. Officially, it's a bilingual party, but in reality, it's 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).
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, in the Flemish part of Brabant, and in Wallonia's Luxembourg province. It has almost equal strength with the socialist confederation in the Brussels area. Its President is 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.
The Growing Power of Regional 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 40% is authorized by the regions and communities.
The Flemish parties generally favour larger regional autonomy, while the francophone parties generally oppose it. The new government has deceided that these matters will not be discussed until after the regional elections of 2004.
Minister-President Flemish Government -- Bart Somers (VLD)
Minister-President Francophone Community Government--(PRL) Hervé Hasquin
Minister-President Walloon Regional Government--(PS) Jean-Claude van Cauwenberghe
Minister-President Brussels Capital Government-- Daniel Ducarme (MR-PRL)
Minister-President German Community Government--Karl-Heinz Lambertz (SP).
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.
Belgium's Linguistic Challenge
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. Belgium is a a country where language is a major political issue.
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 bigger share of political power, tension 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 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.
In 1988-89 the Constitution was again amended to give additional responsibilities to the regions and communities. The most sweeping change was to devolve to the communities responsibilities for educational matters. 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.
(source: U.S. Department of State, background note: Belgium, June 2000)
conventional long form: Kingdom of Belgium
conventional short form: Belgium
local long form: Royaume de Belgique/Koninkrijk België
local short form:
Data code: BE
Government type: federal parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarch
10 provinces (French: provinces, singular - province; Flemish: provinciën, singular - provincie); Antwerpen, Brabant Wallon, Hainaut, Liege, Limburg, Luxembourg, Namur, Oost-Vlaanderen, Vlaams Brabant, West-Vlaanderen
note: the Brussels Capital Region is not included within the 10 provinces
Independence: 4 October 1830 (from the Netherlands)
National holiday: National Day, 21 July (ascension of King Leopold I to the throne in 1831)
Constitution: 7 February 1831, last revised 14 July 1993; parliament approved a constitutional package creating a federal state
Legal system: civil law system influenced by English constitutional theory; judicial review of legislative acts; accepts compulsory ICJ jurisdiction, with reservations
Suffrage: 18 years of age; universal and compulsory
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, PRL, PS, SP, AGALEV, and ECOLO
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)
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
Judicial branch: Supreme Court of Justice or Hof van Cassatie in Dutch, Cour de Cassation in French, judges are appointed for life by the Belgian monarch
Political parties and leaders: AGALEV (Flemish Greens) [Wilfried Bervoets]; ECOLO (Francophone Greens) [no president]; Flemish Christian Democrats or CVP (Christian People's Party) [Stefaan De Clerck, president]; Flemish Liberal Democrats or VLD [Karel De Gucht, president]; Flemish Socialist Party or SP [Patrick Janssens, 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 [Frank Vanhecke]; Volksunie or VU [Geert Bourgeois, president]; other minor parties
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
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
ReferenceMuch of the material in this article comes from the CIA World Factbook 2000 and the 2003 U.S. Department of State website.
- See also : Belgium