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Political Parties

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 and the Liberal Party. In the late 19th century the Socialist Party arose, representing the emerging industrial working class. These three groups still dominate Belgian governments, but they have evolved substantially in character and face new electoral challengers.

Despite the multiple cleavages and the intensity of passions aroused by them, Belgium has remained remarkably stable. This is owing in large part to the multifaceted role played by political parties. They have become three self-sufficient spiritual families, "pillars," or "worlds," enveloping each citizen in a cocoon of social relations. At the apex, the political party has overseen the internal life of the pillar and represented it in the political battles against rival pillars. These pillars have constituted the foundation for the entire system—political, social, and economic—and have served a number of crucial functions in maintaining stability.

The completeness of associational memberships within society guaranteed that the level of independent or disruptive activity among citizens would be very low. Every interest, every need — whether social, economic, or political — was funneled through an organization tied to a pillar. This gave the political parties enormous power to orchestrate public emotions and actions to achieve maximum effect in political struggles, while maintaining their ability to defuse crises rapidly by demobilizing their constituents. Thus, although the issues associated with the cleavages have all been very emotional, touching people's souls as well as pocketbooks, there has never been a time when the disciplineinherent in the pillars was seriously threatened. At the same time, the pillar system separated antipathetic groups, keeping social contact to a minimum, ensuring that resolution of the conflict depended on the acts of the leaders, not on street violence.

In Belgium, there are no "national" parties operating on both sides of the linguistic border. Consequently, elections are a contest among Flemish parties in Dutch-speaking Flanders and Francophone parties in Wallonia. Only in officially bilingual Brussels can voters choose from either Flemish or Francophone parties. Several months before an election, the parties form a list of candidates for each district. Parties are allowed to place as many candidates on their "list" as there are seats available. The formation of the list is an internal process that varies with each party. The number of seats each party receives and where on a list a candidate is placed, or how many individual votes a candidate receives, determines whether a candidate is elected. Since no single party holds an absolute majority in Parliament, after each election the strongest party or "party family" will create a coalition with other parties to form the government. Voting is compulsory in Belgium; more than 90% of eligible voters participate.

Following the June 2010 elections, the parties in the current House are the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) 27 seats; Francophone Socialists (PS) 26 seats; Francophone Liberals (MR) 18 seats; Christian Democrats (CD&V) 17 seats; Flemish Liberals (Open VLD) 13 seats; Flemish Socialists (SP.A) 13 seats; Flemish Far Right (VB) 12 seats; Francophone Democratic and Humanist Center (CDH) 9 seats; Francophone Greens (Ecolo) 8 seats; Flemish Greens (Groen!) 5 seats; List Dedecker 1 seat; Francophone People’s Party (PP) 1 seat.

The Christian Democratic Parties. After World War II, the Catholic (subsequently Christian Democratic) Party severed its formal ties with the Church. It became a mass party of the center (more like a political party in the United States). In 1968, the Christian Democratic Party responded to linguistic tensions in the country by dividing into two independent parties, now known as the Democratic and Humanist Center (CDH) in Francophone Wallonia and the Flemish Christian Democrats (CD&V) in Flanders. The two parties share similar policies, but not on institutional issues. The CD&V is the country's largest party, while the CDH is among the smaller parties. The Socialist Parties. The modern Belgian Socialist parties are labor- and city-based parties. Despite the post-World War II dominance of the Christian Democrats, the Socialists headed several postwar governments. The Socialists also split along linguistic lines in 1978. The francophone Socialists dominate the cities and towns of Wallonia's industrial basin. The Flemish Socialists' support is less concentrated.

The Liberal Parties. In modern times, the Liberal Parties in Belgium have chiefly appealed to business people, property owners, shopkeepers, and the self-employed. In American terms, the Liberals' positions could be considered to reflect a more conservative free market oriented economic ideology. This non-interventionist ideology is reflected also in the parties' strong support for gay marriage, homosexual adoption, and euthanasia. The two current Liberal parties were formed in 1971, after the original all-Belgium Liberal Party split along linguistic lines. They are the Flemish Liberals and Democrats (Open VLD) in Flanders and the Reform Movement (MR) in Wallonia.

Greens. The Flemish (Groen!) and Francophone (ECOLO) ecologist parties made their parliamentary breakthrough in 1981. Following significant gains in the 1999 general elections, the two Green parties joined a federal coalition cabinet for the first time in their history in Prime Minister Verhofstadt's first six-party coalition government. The parties experienced significant losses in the May 2003 election, however, with ECOLO winning only four seats in the Chamber and AGALEV failing to win any seats. They were thus excluded from the new coalition formed by returning Liberal Prime Minister Verhofstadt in 2003. Following the election, AGALEV changed its name to "Groen!." The two parties made a slight recovery in the 2007 general elections and did even better in the 2010 general elections.

The Linguistic Parties. A postwar phenomenon in Belgium was the emergence of linguistic-based parties, which were formed to defend the cultural, political, and economic interests of one of the linguistic groups or regions of Belgian society.

The far-right Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) is the most militant Flemish regional party, with a separatist, anti-immigration, law and order platform. The Vlaams Belang was formerly called the Vlaams Blok, until a 2004 high court ruling confirmed a lower court verdict that the Blok was a "racist" party. Faced with further legal problems, the Blok disbanded and resurrected itself as the Vlaams Belang, with the same party leaders and basically the same radical party policy. The Vlaams Belang was the second most popular party in the 2007 general elections, with 19% of the Flemish vote. The party’s support fell to 7.76% in 2010, as voters in Flanders turned to the more moderate and pragmatic New Flemish Alliance.

In Brussels and Wallonia, the small far-right Front National (FN) managed to hold on to its only House seat in the 2007 general elections but lost it in the 2010 general elections.

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