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Belgium - Government

Belgium today is a parliamentary democracy under a constitutional, hereditary monarch who, while technically the source of all executive authority, relinquishes all governmental decisions to a Council of Ministers led by the Prime Minister. King Albert II took the oath of office on August 9, 1993. On 21 July 2013, King ALBERT II abdicated the throne. In solemn ceremony at royal palace, 79-year-old monarch signs act of abdication in presence of Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo. He was succeeded by his eldest son PHILIPPE. The King's powers are limited to those explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, such as convening and dissolving Parliament, appointing diplomatic envoys, declaring war, and conferring titles and decorations. No act of the King is valid unless the decrees issued in his name are counter-signed by one of the cabinet ministers. Additionally, the King may not act on his own initiative nor against the advice of his cabinet ministers who are drawn from among the members of a bicameral Parliament.

As titular head of state, the King plays a largely ceremonial and symbolic role in the nation. His primary political function is to designate a political leader to attempt to form a new cabinet following either an election, the resignation of a government, or a parliamentary vote of no confidence. The King is seen as playing a symbolic unifying role, representing a common national Belgian identity.

The power of the state is divided into executive, legislative, and judicial categories with duplicative administrative structures operating at the national, regional, provincial, and communal levels. The cabinet holds office as long as it retains the confidence of Parliament, which includes over a dozen political parties split along linguistic and ideological lines. Direct popular elections for parliamentary seats are held at least every four years under a system of universal suffrage, mandatory voting, and proportional representation.

The Belgian Parliament consists of a Senate and a House of Representatives. The House of Representatives 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 that form the government coalition. The number of ministers is limited to 15, and they have no seat in Parliament. The Council of Ministers is chaired by the Prime Minister and consists of the ministerial heads of the executive departments.

The Prime Minister and his ministers administer the government and the various public services. Ministers must defend their policies and performance in person before the House. At the federal level, executive power is wielded by the Council of Ministers. The Prime Minister chairs the Council. Each minister heads a governmental department. No single party or party "family" across linguistic lines holds an absolute majority of seats in Parliament. Consequently, the Council of Ministers reflects the weight of political parties that constitute the governing coalition in the House.

The so-called Butterfly Agreement ("Accord Papillon") was signed by the CD&V, the sp.a, the Open VLD, GROEN! (Flemish green party), the PS, the MR, the Humanist Democratic Centre (cdH) and the Greens - Walloon (Ecolo) in view of the sixth State reform of the federal State of 11 October 2011. The Agreement has several provisions that pertain to the electoral system. First, term lengths were increased from 4 years to 5 years. Second, the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde district was abolished, replaced by one district for Flemish Brabant one district for Brussels Capital Region. Inhabitants of the Brussels Capital Regional can now only vote for lists that are registered in that region. Lastly, the system in which some senators were directly elected was replaced by a system of indirect election only. The state reforms also require parliamentary elections to be held on the same day as elections to the European parliament, which also occur once every 5 years.

The number of seats in the House of Representatives was constitutionally set at 150, elected from 11 electoral districts. Each district is given a number of seats proportional to its total population (not number of eligible voters) ranging from 4 for the Luxembourg district to 24 for Antwerp. The districts are divided along linguistic lines: 5 Flemish, 5 Walloon, and the bilingual district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde.

Based on the sixth State reform, the 71-member Senate, which comprised 40 directly elected members, was transformed into a 60-member indirectly elected body, comprising 50 senators of the federal entities designated by Community and Regional Parliaments and 10 co-opted senators, selected by the 50 senators. Six Dutch-speaking members and four French-speaking members will be co-opted based on the election results of the House of Representatives. The Senate had consisted of 71 seats. For electoral purposes, Senators were divided into three categories: 40 directly elected; 21 elected by the community parliaments; and 10 "co-opted" Senators. For the election of the 25 Flemish and 15 francophone directly elected Senators, the country is divided into three electoral districts--Flanders, Wallonia, and the Brussels Capital Region. Of the 21 Senators representing the communities, 10 are elected by the Flemish Parliament, 10 by the French Community Parliament, and 1 by the German-language Parliament. The remaining category, the 10 "co-opted" senators, are elected by the first two groups of senators. The princes and princesses of the royal line are also members of the Senate--currently Prince Philippe, Prince Laurent, and Princess Astrid.

The allocation of powers between the Parliament and the Council of Ministers is somewhat similar to 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" body 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 limited range of matters, including constitutional reform bills and international treaties.

Demonstrations in the early 1960s led to the establishment of a formal linguistic border in 1962, and elaborate rules made to protect minorities in linguistically mixed border areas. In 1970, Flemish and Francophone cultural councils were established with authority in matters of language and culture for the two-language groups. Each of the three economic regions--Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels--was granted a significant measure of political autonomy.

In August 1980, the Belgian Parliament passed a devolution bill and amended the Constitution, establishing "Community autonomy." As a result, in Flanders, the Flemish Parliament and government are competent for both regional and community affairs; in Wallonia, the Francophone Community Parliament and government are competent for community affairs, while the Walloon Regional Parliament and government are responsible for regional affairs. Subsequent constitutional reform established a community Parliament and government for the German-speaking cantons in 1983, and a regional Parliament and government for the Brussels Capital Region in 1989.

Since 1984, the German language community of Belgium (in the eastern part of Liege Province) has had its own legislative assembly and executive, which have authority in cultural, language, and subsequently educational affairs.

In 1988-89, the Constitution was again amended to give additional responsibilities to the regions and communities. The most sweeping change was the devolution of educational responsibilities to the community level. As a result, the regions and communities were provided additional revenue, and Brussels was given its own legislative assembly and executive.

Another important constitutional reform occurred in the summer of 1993, changing 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 community and regional legislative councils. The bilingual Brabant province, which contained the Brussels region, was split into separate Flemish and Walloon Brabant provinces. The revised Constitution came into force in 1994.

Of total public spending--interest payments not considered--more than 40% is authorized by the regions and communities. The regional and community governments have jurisdiction over transportation, public works, water policy, cultural matters, education, public health, environment, housing, zoning, economic and industrial policy, agriculture, foreign trade, and oversight of provincial and local governments. They rely on a system of revenue sharing with the federal government for most of their funds. They have the authority to levy taxes (mostly surcharges) and contract loans. Moreover, they have obtained treaty-making power for those issues coming under their respective jurisdictions.

In addition to three regions and three cultural communities, Belgium also is divided into 10 provinces and 589 municipalities. The provincial governments are primarily administrative units and are politically weak. A governor appointed by the King presides over each province. Each governor is supported by an elected Provincial Council of 47 to 84 members (depending on the size of the province), 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 originate from municipal political bases; and many often double as mayor or alderman in their hometowns in addition to their federal and regional political positions.

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