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World > Europe > Belgium > Government and Political Conditions (Notes)

Belgium - Government and Political Conditions (Notes)


GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS

National Government
Belgium is a hereditary constitutional monarchy. The current monarch is King Albert II, who took the oath of office on August 9, 1993.

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 Belgian Parliament consists of a Senate and a House of Representatives. The House of Representatives has 150 directly elected members. The Senate has 71 elected 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 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.

The largest parties in the current Chamber are the Flemish Liberal Party (VLD), 25 seats; the Francophone Socialists (PS), 25 seats, the Francophone Liberals (MR), 25 seats; the Flemish Socialists and Spirit alliance (SP.A/Spirit), 23 seats, the Flemish Christian Democratic party (CD&V), 21 seats; the right-wing Vlaams Belang party (VB), 18 seats; and the Francophone Christian Democrats (CDH) 7 seats. The Francophone Greens (ECOLO), have 4 seats, while the New Flemish Alliance (NV.A) and Francophone Front National each have 1 seat. The Flemish Greens (AGALEV -- now Groen!) did not win any Chamber seats in the 2003 election, but have one 'co-opted' Senator (see below) as a result of an agreement with the Flemish Socialist Party. National elections will take place on June 10, 2007.

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.

The Council of Ministers
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 for the House, currently the four-party Liberal-Socialist coalition.

Principal Government Officials
Prime Minister--Guy Verhofstadt
Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Justice--Laurette Onkelinx
Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Finance--Didier Reynders
Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Budget and Public Enterprise--Freya van den Bossche
Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Interior--Patrick Dewael
Minister of Foreign Affairs--Karel De Gucht
Minister of Defense--Andre Flahaut
Minister for the Economy, Energy, Foreign Trade, and Science Policy--Marc Verwilghen

Ambassador to the United States--Dominicus Struye de Swielande
Ambassador to the United Nations--Johan Verbeke

The Belgian embassy is located at 3330 Garfield Street NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-333-6900; fax 202-333-3079).

The Electoral System
The number of seats in the House of Representatives is 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.

The Senate consists of 71 seats. For electoral purposes, Senators are 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 Phillippe, Prince Laurent, and Princess Astrid.

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.

Belgium has 25 seats in the European Parliament.

Belgium?s Linguistic Divide
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 governments for the German-speaking cantons in 1983, and a regional Parliament and government for the Brussels Capital Region in 1989.

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.

Of total public spending--interest payments not considered--more than 40% is authorized by the regions and communities.

Provincial and Local Government
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 four 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.

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.

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 Center Democratic and Humanistic (CDH) in Francophone Wallonia and the Flemish Christian Democrats (CD&V) in Flanders. The two parties share similar policies but maintain separate organizations.

The Socialist Parties. The modern Belgian Socialist parties are labor-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 and Brussels. 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 (VLD) (Prime Minister Verhofstadt's party) 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 House 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 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 Bloc, until a 2004 high court ruling confirmed a lower court verdict that the Bloc was a 'racist' party. Faced with further legal problems, the Bloc disbanded and resurrected itself as the Vlaams Belang, with the same party leaders but a less radical party policy. The Vlaams Belang was the second most popular party in the 2004 regional elections, with 24% of the vote. Polls in 2007 showed the Vlaams Belang as the second or third most popular political party in Flanders, after the Christian Democrats (at about 30%), about even with the Socialists (at about 20%), and ahead of the Liberals.

In Wallonia, the small Francophone nationalist Front National (FN) surprised many political pundits by gaining enough votes in the May 2003 federal election to survive the new 5% cutoff limit for votes in any precinct required to enter Parliament. FN retained its 1 Chamber seat and gained 2 new Senate seats.

The now-defunct Volksunie Party (VU) was the most militant Flemish regional party in Parliament in the 1950s and 1960s, drawing nearly one-quarter of Belgium's Dutch-speaking electorate at the height of its popularity. However, as much of the VU's nationalist agenda was realized through subsequent Constitutional reforms that saw the devolution of significant power to the Regions, the VU suffered severe setbacks in more recent elections, winning only 8 seats in the 150-seat Chamber in 1999. In 2001, Volksunie splintered into a traditional Flemish nationalist faction, the NVA (currently in alliance with the CD&V since before the 2004 regional election), and a more liberal faction, Spirit (in an electoral alliance with the Flemish Socialist Party since before the 2003 federal election).

Labor Unions
Belgium is a highly unionized country, and organized labor has been a powerful influence in politics, although less so in recent elections. About 53% of all private sector and public service employees are labor union members. Unlike many American unions, Belgian labor unions take positions on a wide range of political issues, including education, public finance, defense spending, environmental protection, women's rights, abortion, and other issues. They also provide a range of services, including the administration of unemployment benefits and health insurance programs.

Belgium's three principal trade union organizations are the Confederation of Catholic Labor Unions (CSC/ACV), the Belgian Socialist Confederation of Labor (FGTB/ABVV), and the Confederation of Liberal Labor Unions (CGSLB/ACLVB). Until the 1950s, the FGTB/ABVV was the largest confederation; since then, however, the CSC/ACV has become the leading trade union force.

The Confederation of Catholic Labor Unions (CSC/ACV). Organized in 1912, the CSC/ACV rejected the Marxist concept of 'class struggle' and seeks to achieve a just social order based on Christian principles. The CSC/ACV is not formally linked to its party political counterparts, the Christian Democratic parties (CD&V and CDH) but exercises influence in their councils. The CSC/ACV is the leading union in all Flemish provinces and in Wallonia's Luxembourg province. It has almost equal strength with the socialist confederation in the Brussels area.

The Belgian Socialist Confederation of Labor (FGTB/ABVV). The FGTB/ABVV derives from the Socialist Trade Union Movement, established in the late 19th century in Walloon industrial areas, Brussels, and urban areas of Flanders. Today, the FGTB/ABVV is the leading union in the Hainaut, Namur, and Liège provinces and matches the CSC/ACV in Brussels.

The Confederation of Liberal Labor Unions (CGSLB/ACLVB). With 240,000 members, this is the smallest of the major union groups. Drawing primarily from management positions, the Brussels-based CGLB/ACVB is Belgium's most pro-business union. The union is not formally affiliated with any political party.

Current Issues
Belgium is a member of the European Economic and Monetary Union. Budgetary issues remain a key concern of the Verhofstadt government, particularly given the slow economic growth Belgium and most of Europe have experienced of late.

Belgium's reaction to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks was strong and supportive. For example, Belgium played a key role in helping to obtain EU-wide agreement on a European arrest warrant and in facilitating extradition of terrorist suspects. In support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Belgium contributed a navy frigate in the Mediterranean, AWAC crews for surveillance flights over the United States, as well as aircraft for humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. Belgium has contributed ground troops to ISAF since 2002 and provides humanitarian and reconstruction assistance to both Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2006, Belgium sent about 400 peacekeepers to Lebanon in support of the UN mission there.

Current issues before the Verhofstadt government include improving the climate for foreign investment, dealing with rising health care costs, and adjusting the federal social security system to a rapidly aging population.

Belgium continues to increase its counter-terrorism capabilities by adding domestic legislative, judicial, intelligence, and law enforcement tools that increase its ability to prevent or respond to terrorism. The government also cooperates closely with other European states and the United States in investigating cases of international terrorism. In 2006, Belgium convicted ten individuals for their support of attacks in Madrid and Casablanca. Belgium operates within UN and EU frameworks concerning the freezing of terrorist assets, and in 2007 enacted a domestic legal framework to act independently.


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