A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

Belgian Elections Are Barmy

In Constitutional Spotlight, Europe, Events on June 21, 2010 at 10:40 am

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Let’s get something very obvious very clear before we launch into this idea. The recent Belgian elections were not interesting. Belgian elections are some of the blandest ‘events’ Europe has, thus far, invented. Nor, in fact, is Belgium very interesting. A few years ago, when the world still believed a fake Belgian news broadcaster’s fake report about the country splitting in two, it failed to make headline news. Herman van Rompuy is not interesting. In fact, the whole thing is entirely uninteresting. Why then write a blog post about it?

The Liberal Democrats might look at Belgium’s electoral system and smile. It uses a regional list system, it limits party spending during campaigns, it uses proportional representation and has an elected second chamber, mostly elected, but also with senators from ‘community parliaments’ (county councils to us UK folk) and other senators co-opted by a ballot of senators. They even do the voting on computers. They do use voter ID cards, but this might be the only thing the Lib Dems would object to in this system.

But the ID card might be necessary here. Belgians can vote in five different ways (yes five!). They can vote for one party’s list. They can spoil their ballot paper. They can rank the candidates within one party according to preference, but they needn’t rank all of them if they don’t want to. Or, they can rank the parties in order of preference. And if they’re feeling really bold, they can rank various candidates from different parties according to preference. I wonder how on earth anyone keeps a handle on what the people actually want. At least they kept their ID so they can go back and ask them what they actually wanted if it wasn’t abundantly clear from their ballot form. A turnout of 90% is impressive, but not when you consider that voting is compulsory; Australia, where voting is compulsory also, rarely receives a turnout below 95%. There is a signficant disenfranchisement and/or confusion among the Belgian electorate. And who can blame them?

It all sounds wonderful and very democratic. Of course, Belgium is on the verge of a constitutional crisis as well. Its parties are divided so strongly along sectarian lines that there is a Francophone Socialist party and a Dutch-speaking Socialist party. There are also nationalist Flemish parties, which put candidates up in the primarily Francophone Brussels, and a few small national Walloon parties. This creates a massive problem in that several major parties in Belgium are committed to secession from Belgium. And this might come to a head soon.

In this most recent election, the New Flemish Alliance (NVA) is apportioned with 27 seats in the 150 seat Chamber. Behind them is the Francophone Socialist party (PS), with 26, which can expect to be joined by the Flemish Socialist with 13 (SPA). The Flemish Christian Democrats (CDV), previously in coalition with N-VA, have 17 seats. The Francophone Reformist Movement (MR) has 18 seats, and will be joined by the Flemish Liberals and Democrats (VLD) with 13. The Francophone Humanist Democratic Centre (CDH) have historically aligned themselves with CDV and got 9 seats. The Flemish Interest party (VB) got 12 seats, the Green parties 13 between them, and the Belgian equivalent of the neo-cons got 2 seats. 4.84% of votes went to parties who got no representation. You still interested?

This gives the Flemish nationalists 39 seats, the Socialists 39, the Christian Democrats 26 seats, Liberals 31 seats, Greens 13, Conservatives 2. And we’re all confused about the likely government as lengthy coalition talks begin. The initial moves will be made by the NVA to the PS. Which is confusing, because they sit on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but it will give them 78 seats, a majority, assuming the Francophones bring their Flemish brothers. In short, a NVA-PS-SPA-VB coalition.

alternatively, the Christians could swing left and form an anti-secessionist coalition. With the Greens, that’s 78 seats and PS-CDV-SPA-CDH-E-G will become the governing string of letters.  If, however, those on the right of Belgian politics were to band together in a Flemish/Christian/Liberal/Conservative joint thing, we would have a 98 seat coalition, so they could afford some abstentions here and there, or not bring the Conservatives on board for 96 seats. This would be NVA-VB-CDV-CDH-MR-VLD-(LD-PP) coalition, and their mail will be delivered to a little-known address in Antwerp.

All this will take months to organise behind closed doors, and likely not last long, and certainly won’t do much, other than, if the NVA do manage to lead the government, move from a federalist model to a co-federalist model. Assuming the King doesn’t die in the meantime and the Senate arithmetic adds up.

My word, this sounds like a desperately productive way to go about democracy. It’s hardly open and accountable. It’s probably not want the Belgian people want. For all its flaws, First Past the Post generally produces stable government with a popular mandate, and does so quickly. It checks sectarianism and nationalism arising in the regions, and only lets it happen if the people do actually want it. It also incredibly simple to understand how it works, who you voted for and what they’re going to try to do. Ultimately, embracing the Liberal Democrats’ voting reforms will turn the UK into something like Belgium. Except the Scotts have a bigger axe to grind than the Flemish, and we don’t have so many ‘big’ parties. It would require the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems to fragment to work, otherwise the BNP is set to do well. It would lead to governments worked out by backroom deals every time, not in exceptional circumstances. And remember, while Belgian politicians bicker, they have their own sovereign debt crisis to worry about; which is now being blithely ignored. Democracy requires that we ultimately swallow some of what we believe to come to some sort of consensus; the Belgian system, and Liberal Democrat ideas, make it so that people do not have to compromise any aspect of their ideals, while making the greyest of washes possible; this only happens because the way the Belgian system works, and ultimately, the way coalition and PR works, is not as democratic as it is marketed.

One last thing: the Belgian judiciary tried to intervene to rule this election unconstitutional. I for one am not a fan of a government seeking the support of its people being ruled criminally unconstitutional. It is truly a sick system that might allow an election to be called unconstitutional. Closer to Benin than Belgium. Happy voting.

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  1. Very interesting blog post, I didn’t even realise Belgium had elections. I thought they just rolled along and took whatever came to them. I’m impressed by your clear knowledge of Belgium parties, probably unbeaten by any other commentator in the anglo-saxon world.

    I do have issues with the conclusions you draw from Belgium though. Firstly, I don’t think its likely that the Liberal Democrats plans for electoral reform will approach anything near the extreme that Belgium has. The Lib Dems fought the last election to change the electoral system to Single Transferable Vote. That’s not a straight PR system, although it is more proportionate than FPTP and AV. It also happens to be the one used in Northern Ireland for its assembly which, though not perfect, has done pretty well.

    Secondly, I don’t agree that FPTP somehow ‘checks’ sectarianism or nationalism – STV after all does a good job in Northern Ireland. Also saying FPTP checks nationalism suggests to be an underlying assumption that nationalism/secterianism is a bad thing, which I’m not sure is validated. And this seems confused by your statement that it only happens if people actually want it – either you mean FPTP only allows a nationalist to be elected if the majority vote for him, (which isn’t necessarily true since once could be voted in on 30% of the vote(, or you mean a PR system will allow more nationalists to be voted in (which suggests to me that it is actually what people want).

    Thirdly, your understanding of democracy jars heavily your analysis of what’s wrong with Belgium’s electoral system. You say that democracy requires we ultimately swallow our own beliefs to come to a consensus, yet this is precisely what a PR system ensures and what a FPTP system does not. A political party, say Labour which forms a government with about 35% of the vote in 2005, need not compromise on any aspect of its manifesto or beliefs, whilst a coalition, such as the Lib-Con coalition, has clearly compromised greatly on its manifesto commitments, such as on Trident, personal allowances, electoral reform etc. I don’t see how you differentiate compromising with ‘grey washing’, which are essentially the same thing.

    Finally, I just want to content against your idea of democracy in general, which is obviously a contested ideal anyway. Perhaps if you could clarify what you mean by democracy, I’ll understand these arguments a little better. If its a simple case of the least number of votes wasted, then I have to say Belgium does a splendid job. If its a case of a system that produces a strong government, then FPTP is the way to go. Where do you stand on that more precisely?

  2. […] may ask? I suspect that is an answer which has its roots in many factors, not least including the “grey wash” created by our electoral system. One I’d like to think has most influence is that the more […]

  3. Stephen, as you know I responded to your comments in a trilogy of articles. For the first, where I deal with the issues you raise most directly, search ‘Democracy is the Worst form of Government’ in your wordpress toolbar, or trawl back through articles on Ideology or Parliamentary Spotlight to see what I think. By the way, in September 2010, Belgium still does not have a new government.

    • I don’t think I’ve ever had someone respond to a comment on an article with a trilogy worthy of Tolkien! Many thanks, as you know I’ve read and commented on one, and I shall read the rest as I go on.

      And by all indications, Belgium will be having another election soon, no?

  4. […] for a verse about the singularly enrapturing elections in Belgium this year. In accordance with a prediction I made on this blog some months ago, Belgium has blithely continued without a […]

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