Elections 2024: What makes Belgium special – or not?

Just as most people think they’re unique, so countries think they’re different from the rest. The Belgian political system certainly has its singularities. But it also has challenges and problems that are truly universal.

The most obvious specificity is that there are two important communities in Belgium: the Flemish and the francophone. There are more Flemish people, but the balance of power is almost equal. The two communities have been united inside Belgium for nearly 200 years, but they’ve grown far apart.

That’s why, other than the communist PVDA/PTB, there are no united political parties. Liberals, socialists, Christian democrats, greens … they’re all divided into two parties. On top of that, there are some strictly regional parties. This leads to a lot of parties, inside both the parliament and the government. The present federal government is a seven-party coalition.

With such fragmentation, the political system in Belgium is one of strict party discipline. Individual politicians have to follow the guidelines from their party. And the parties inside the government have to stick to the governmental programme drawn up at the start.

This culture leads to strong and powerful party leaders, and to weak parliaments. Voting in the national and regional parliaments is seldom more than a formality. Nearly everything comes down to all members of the majority against all members of the opposition.

The party leaders decide on the formation of a government. And once the coalition is in place, they decide who the ministers will be.

No hierarchy

Belgium is, of course, not the only country with several communities. There are many decentralised countries with regional governments. Where Belgium is different is that there’s no hierarchy. The federal government can’t tell the regional governments what to do.

This makes collaboration difficult. In theory, the competences of all levels of authority are clearly attributed to one government or the other. But in a complex society, nearly all decisions and challenges are spread out over several governments.

The Belgian constitution has a solution for this: the consultation committee, where all governments meet to coordinate their policies. In practice, competition between governments (and the different parties that constitute them) is such that constructive consultation is more the exception than the rule.

Unwelcome weakness

With so many parties, and so many competing political levels – national, regional, community, local – it’s no wonder the Belgian political system is weak. All parties are small, which means they’re afraid of making compromises. Parties can only survive by using powerful language in the media. In a globalised world, with rising competition from different parts of that world and many complex challenges, such weakness is unwelcome.

All the more so since Belgium is only a small country. Even in a perfect political system, Belgian politicians would have a difficult time giving answers to challenges such as illegal immigration, climate and environment, fair taxation and social protection.

More and more Belgian voters are, therefore, disappointed in national politics. The distance between politics and daily life grows.

This disappointment will not be noticed through growing abstention at the June election. Belgium is one of the few countries where voting is compulsory. Voters will likely demonstrate their discontent through votes for extremist parties, on both the right and the left. Just like anywhere else in the world.

This weekend, Belga English reflects on the upcoming elections. This is the second article in a series of three.


#FlandersNewsService | Prime ministers and ministers from the Flemish, Walloon, federal and Brussels governments ©BELGA PHOTO LAURIE DIEFFEMBACQ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​

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