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Belgium - Politics

Belgium is ruled by parties not governments. Elections are an important tool for the operation of a democratic state. They ensure that the population is represented by political parties in legislative bodies of various levels of governance, such as parliaments and councils. Participation in elections, i.e. voting, is mandatory in Belgium.

Language, economic, and political differences between Dutch-speaking Flanders and Francophone Wallonia have led to increased divisions in Belgian society. The Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and the 19th century accentuated the linguistic North-South division. Francophone Wallonia became an early industrial boom area, affluent and politically dominant. Dutch-speaking Flanders remained agricultural and was economically and politically outdistanced by Brussels and Wallonia. The last 50 years have marked the rapid economic development of Flanders while the coal and steel industries of Wallonia went into sharp decline, resulting in a corresponding shift of political and economic power to the Flemish, who now constitute an absolute majority (58%) of the population.

Belgium is also a model of pacification democracy. Throughout many conflicts during the 19th and 20th centuries, an enduring compromise grew between Catholics and freethinkers, making Belgium one of the most pluralistic countries in Europe today. The fierce conflict between workers and employers, in its turn, led to a well-functioning model of a consultation and welfare state. Two cultures live together in Belgium. Up until the second half of the past century, the Flemish majority was at an economic, political and cultural disadvantage; during the process of catching up, coinciding with the demise of the Walloon economy, a complex federal model developed, in which cosmopolitan Brussels takes a very special position.

During the period of the revolution of 1830, no more than 46,099 men had the right to vote, being considered rich enough and/or educated enough to choose responsibly, out of a population of four million? These well-nourished gentlemen, on November 3 of that year, elected a national congress made up of 200 deputies, of whom about half were magistrates, bureaucrats or holders of degrees in the liberal professions. Lawyers alone made up a third of all deputies in this assembly. There were no women holding office. There was tension between Catholics and liberals, the latter forming the main bloc opposed to the still enormous influence of the clergy in society. A Belgian Workers Party (POB) was not formed until 1885; this party stood for the democratisation of the electoral system through the adoption of universal suffrage though only for men.

The social-Christian political party that expressed the Churchs will campaigned at the side of suffragettes. Universal male suffrage became law in 1919, but universal suffrage for women did not become law until 1948. Before these events, however, in the year 1899, an important reform did occur in the electoral system: simple majorities for election were replaced by proportional voting, which made possible a more equitable division of political forces.

More than elsewhere, liberalism reigned supreme in the 19th century, and as a result the social question was raised with great vehemence. The World Wars put Belgium in the middle of the fighting twice over; especially after 1945, the country played a prominent international role, first in the foundation of the Atlantic alliance and the European construction, and later in the decolonisation of the Congo. In the meantime, Belgium has developed into one of the countries experiencing the full force of globalisation, and, thanks to Brussels, into one of the preeminent international political centres.

Except for anticipated elections, members of the Chamber of representatives and Senators were elected every 4 years. The European Parliament and the community and regional councils are elected every 5 years, the municipal and provincial councils every 6 years. A series of institutional reforms were agreed upon during government formation negotiations in October 2011, sometimes referred to as the Butterfly Agreement ("Accord Papillon"). 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.

While elections were constitutionally required every four years, Belgian politics of the post-war years witnessed a series of government collapses as a result of complex, fragile coalitions based primarily on the country's ethnic divisions. Generally, no single Belgian party scores, on average, more than 25 percent of the vote in its respective linguistic group, thus coalition building is the only way into government. The linguistic split into Flemish and Wallonian regions remained the most significant factor in Belgian political life, with all major institutions divided by language, and with regional linguistic rivalries having to be taken into account on all important national decisions.

The ever-present perils of the language issue were dramatically highlighted by the October 1987 resignation of Prime Minister Martens and his center-right government over a purely linguistic issue in which the militant French-speaking mayor of a small village called Fourons, located in the Flemish Limburg province, refused to speak Dutch in the formal execution of his duties. While the underlying currents in this issue include significant unease at the shift of political and economic power away from Wallonia, it served to emphasize how deeply the linguistic division runs in Belgium and the hazard it poses to any government seeking to remain in power.

As a parliamentary democracy, Belgium has been governed by successive coalitions of two or more political parties. 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.

The centrist Christian Democratic Party often provided the Prime Minister. In the 1999 general election, Belgian voters rejected Jean Luc Dehaene's longstanding coalition government of Christian Democrats and Socialists and voted into power a coalition led by Flemish Liberal Leader Guy Verhofstadt. The first Verhofstadt government (1999-2003) was a six-party coalition between the Flemish and Francophone Liberals, Socialists, and Greens. It was the first Liberal-led coalition in generations and the first six-party coalition in 20 years. It also was the first time the Greens had participated in Belgium's federal government. In the general election of 2003, the Greens suffered significant losses, while the Socialists posted strong gains and the Liberals also had modest growth in electoral support. Liberal Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt reconstituted the coalition as a four-party government in July 2003, with only the Liberals and Socialists in power.

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