Interior minister pleads for renewed political culture “not about the ‘me’, but about society”

Belgium’s Interior minister Annelies Verlinden, who also carries the title of minister for Institutional Reform and Democratic Renewal, calls for a radical shift in political culture “away from ego, towards a regained commitment to society”. “Imagine a modern political culture which is not about the ‘me’, but about society. A return to the origins of politics”, she wrote in a column published by De Morgen newspaper.

In her text, Verlinden names several examples of the ‘ego politics’ which, according to her, dominate the current political landscape. “A party leader calling the chairman of a coalition partner a liar live on television. A series of politicians voicing strong opinions following a minister’s communication about a student’s rape case, outside the victim’s will. An MP appearing in parliament with a TV crew in her wake to defend herself in a fraud case. An opposition member openly questioning a minister’s illness, based on a rumour. Unfortunately, this is not a review of the political low points of this legislature. It is simply the record of the past week.”

Adding several examples from personal experience, Verlinden speaks of the ‘soapification’ of our politics, which she says is “nothing new, but the pace is dramatically faster lately. (…) And there seems to be no change in sight.”

As minister of Democratic Renewal, the CD&V (Christian Democrats) politician pleads for a two-part solution. “A difficult part and an almost impossible part. The difficult part is the structural part: how do we organise our democracy and the functioning of political parties? The need for a consensus on this is urgent. But what I want to talk about here is the almost impossible part. What everyone senses but no one expresses. (…) No matter how many party nominations we cut, how fast we abolish the Senate, and how many state reforms we push through, it will not quickly make any difference in regard to the public’s trust in politics. It will not make any difference until politics can renew itself from within and make a radical cultural shift.”

“Political renewal”, Verlinden continues, “also means a change in mentality, away from ego, towards a regained commitment to society. Imagine a modern political culture which is not about the ‘me’, but about society. A return to the origins of politics: issues of importance to the state rather than the politician’s ego.”

The media, too, have to contribute to this political renewal, the minister says. “Could it be: a climate where politicians are punished for destructive narcissism rather than rewarded with a rise in the polls? (…) Where an act of policy is bigger news than A having said B in response to C’s tweet?”

More optimistically, Verlinden claims that most politicians “started out of genuine commitment, myself included. (...) I did it because I hoped - and still hope - to make a difference in our society because it was too easy to stay on the sidelines. It hurts me that a very different image of politicians comes to life, one which I do not and will never want to recognise myself in.”

Finally, the minister says, she and her colleagues have one common wish: “Just being able to do our jobs, without King Clickbait”. This, however, “hinges on everyone cooperating, and so we wait for each other. Because being the only one who remains calm and continues working, also means being invisible and losing. Who dares to flip the switch and take the pressure cooker off the fire? It’s almost impossible, but I think it can be done.”



Belgian Interior minister Annelies Verlinden © BELGA PHOTO JAMES ARTHUR GEKIERE

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