Elections 2024: Belgian voters prepare to go to the polls multiple times this year
Elections are the high mass of democracy, according to a saying in Flanders. Belgians will have to go to church a lot this year: for European, national, regional, provincial, communal, and even social elections.
Yes, Belgians have to turn out at election time. Actually casting a vote is not compulsory but voters have to present themselves at the polling station. There are exceptions. Those aged between 16 and 18 can vote in the European elections, but don’t have to. Non-Belgian EU citizens can vote in the EU elections if they are registered, and non-Belgian citizens, EU or not can vote in the communal elections if registered.
On 9 June, voters will receive several ballot papers: for the European, the federal and regional elections.
The European election is simple: in Belgium, 22 MEPs will be chosen, one more than in the current EP.
For the federal elections, only members of the Chamber have to be chosen. Belgium also has a Senate, but as an institution it is largely irrelevant, and members come from other elected parliaments.
The federal level is the most visible for the rest of the world but has lost a lot of its competences (and finances) in recent decades, due to several state reforms. What remains on the federal level includes the social security system and the largest part of the sovereign debt.
At the regional level, it is more complicated. Belgium has two decentralised levels: communities and regions. The communities have competences linked to the people (education, culture, care), while the regions have competences linked to the territory (economy, infrastructure). In theory, this principle is simple, but in practice it creates some very complex situations.
One example: the recent Covid pandemic was handled by nine Health ministers in Belgium, each one from a different government. During that time, the governments were able to collaborate well. This is, however, far from straightforward. All Belgium’s governments are coalitions of multiple parties and those coalitions are different in each of the governments, or asymmetric.
In the Belgian constitution there is no hierarchy between governments – so the federal government is not above the regional governments – but there is a concertation committee, where governments can negotiate and solve their differences. In reality, governments often go their own way, without the will to collaborate.
On 13 October, there is another round of elections, this time at the local level: provinces and municipalities. Provinces are like the Senate: a relic from the past, made largely irrelevant by the six recent state reforms.
In Belgium there are 581 municipalities. Most experts agree this is too many to deliver good services to citizens. Citizens, however, tend to be against mergers of municipalities because they identify strongly with their local level. The Flemish government, for example, offered municipalities big financial advantages if they merged, but the number will only decrease slightly after this year.
Many politicians also prefer a local mandate over a national or regional one. National politics is seen as a thankless job, where you need to put in a lot of hard work only to be criticised at every turn. At a local level, politics is supposed to be more relaxed and rewarding.
That leaves the social elections. These take place in large companies, to appoint the trade union members who will negotiate with their employer about social issues.
Although this is between employers and employees, there is some political influence. The unions look to gain a stronger profile in the months leading up to the social elections. In doing so, tensions mount, and they look for support to the political parties they are linked with: socialist, liberal, Christian democrat.
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