The countries of the European Union (including the United Kingdom) will cast their votes tomorrow to elect the members of the European Parliament, the main legislative wing of the EU. For one of its members, Belgium, tomorrow marks an electoral “triple threat”; Belgians across the country will be voting for EU, federal, and local offices. In a country with deeply historic factional divides, tomorrow’s election holds quite a bit of significance for the future of this small European kingdom.
What kind of government and politics does Belgium have?
Belgium is a constitutional monarchy. The King of the Belgians (currently King Philippe/Filip) is the head of state while the Prime Minister of Belgium (currently Charles Michel) is the head of government through a multi-party parliament.
The Belgian Parliament is made up of two houses: the upper house called the Senate and the lower house called the Chamber of Representatives. Since the Senate is indirectly elected and not as powerful, the focus of these elections is on the Chamber of Representatives.
The 150 seats of the Chamber of Representatives – the lower but significantly more important house of Belgium’s parliament – are elected in 11 constituencies with multiple members proportionally representing the same constituency. (To illustrate this in an American analogy, imagine if all of New York’s 27 representatives served all New Yorkers rather than individual districts.) Seats are allocated in proportion to the number of votes cast using the d’Hondt method (e.g. if a party receives about 30% of the vote, that party will receive roughly 30% of the seats in the Chamber of Representatives).
The Belgian Parliament is reflective of its regional diversity. Belgium is comprised of three major regions distinguished by the languages spoken in each area, with Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, French-speaking Wallonia in the south, and a smaller German-speaking region in Wallonia to the east. Brussels, the capital of Belgium, is considered a bilingual region of Dutch and French. The distinction between the Flemish and French communities, through linguistic and economic differences, plays a major divisive role in the politics of Belgium (as discussed further below).
All Belgian citizens 18 years and older are eligible to vote, and Belgium is one of nearly two dozen countries where voting is compulsory, leading to much higher turnouts than other democracies.
Who are the major candidates and political parties?
Nearly all of the political parties in Belgium are divided based on language (Flemish parties are primarily in Flanders and Francophone parties are primarily in Wallonia). The major parties include (in order of number of seats in the previous parliament):
- New Flemish Alliance (N-VA): the N-VA is a Flemish conservative and nationalist party with Bart de Wever as its party leader for this election. A strong regional party, N-VA supports the eventual secession of Flanders from the rest of Belgium. In the last parliament, N-VA was the largest party with 33 seats and was part of the coalition government from 2014 until December 2018, when it left the coalition over disagreement with the Global Compact for Migration.
- Socialist Party (PS): the PS is a French social-democratic party with Elio Di Rupo as its party leader; Di Rupo was Prime Minister of Belgium from 2011 to 2014. While PS was the second largest party in the last parliament with 23 seats, it was not a part of the coalition government for the first time in 25 years.
- Reformist Movement (MR): the MR is a French liberal party with Charles Michel as its party leader. Michel served as Prime Minister in the last parliament, but offered his resignation following the coalition breakup with N-VA; he has continued as a caretaker Prime Minister since then. The party had 20 seats in the last parliament.
- Christian Democratic and Flemish (CD&V): the CD&V is a Flemish Christian-democratic party with Wouter Beke as its leader. Until recently it was the largest political party in Flanders, but has been eclipsed by N-VA and held 18 seats in the last parliament. It was a member of the coalition government.
- Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats (Open VLD): the Open VLD is a Flemish center-right party with Gwendolyn Rutten as its party leader. A member of the government coalition, it held 14 seats in the last parliament.
- Ecolo: Ecolo is a French left green party with Zakia Khattabi and Patrick Dupriez as its party leaders. While only holding 6 seats in the last parliament, Ecolo has performed surprisingly well in recent local election and may become more prominent federally moving forward.
Who is predicted to win?
No clear leader is expected. The latest polling indicates that N-VA will receive the most votes, with 27% of those polled indicating support. Other major contenders include PS (20%), CD&V and MR (16% each), and Ecolo (15%). The difficult part may come after the election; a coalition government is all but guaranteed, and after N-VA left the previous coalition in December 2018, other parties might be more unyielding in the negotiation process.
Linguistic and economic differences play a major divisive role in the politics of Belgium
What are the key issues for this election?
Three major issues are at stake in tomorrow’s election:
- Regional divides: the distinction and political tension between Flanders and Wallonia make it difficult for any one party to gain a clear majority in the Chamber of Representatives. N-VA seeks to split Belgium in two, but if victorious on Sunday may have to compromise in order to govern the country effectively.
- Migration: in December 2018, N-VA left the government coalition over disagreement with the adoption of the U.N. Migration Compact. While the Compact had majority support from several parties in Belgium, N-VA, led by hard line immigration minister Theo Francken, refused to back the deal, leaving Prime Minister Charles Michel leading a minority government. While migration is not a front-and-center issue for this election, the fallout from the Compact dispute looms over the coalition-forming process.
- Climate: Globally as well as regionally in Belgium, the rising threat of climate change is becoming a major issue with which politicians need to grapple. Ecolo succeeded in local elections in 2018 largely due to increased concern for air quality in Belgium. Depending on the importance of this issue for Belgian voters, Ecolo could jump from an obscure regional party to a major player in the subsequent coalition.
When will we know the results?
Initial results will become available once polls close on Sunday evening (May 26). EagleCo will publish its follow-up this week once the full results are in.
Follow-up: Conservative Victory, But Without a Clear Leader
After the marathon of a triple election day, no one party won a majority in Belgium’s parliamentary election (as was expected). While the results were mainly predictable, some key takeaways will carry significance as Belgium seeks to hobble together a governing coalition.
Right-wing parties make significant gains
Bart de Weaver’s conservative New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) emerged from Sunday with over 1 million votes (16.03%) and 25 seats, a loss of 8 seats from the last parliament but still the most seats of any other party. Polls leading up to election day predicted that N-VA would perform well. Somewhat more surprising was the second-place finish of the Flemish Interest party (Vlaams Belang) a right-wing populist and Flemish national party that received 11.95% of the vote and growing to 18 seats. The gains of Vlaams Belang were large enough that, as part of negotiations to form a coalition government, the King of the Belgians became the first monarch since the 1930’s to meet with a far-right party leader.
Green Parties make moderate gains
While Flanders favored these two conservative parties, Wallonia saw gains for liberal parties, specifically those favoring environmental protections. The Socialist Party (PS) won the most in the south, with 9.46% of the vote and holding on to 20 seats in parliament. Further, Ecolo and Groen combined for 12.24% of the vote and hold 13 and 8 seats, respectively, in the new parliament. The moderate success of two environmental parties shows the cross-cutting nature of environmentalism for Flemish and Walloons.
Regional divides mean there is no majority
As mentioned in our pre-election spotlight, Belgium is politically divided between its Dutch-speaking north and French-speaking south, leading to no single party gaining an absolute majority in its elections. While N-VA and Vlaams Belang will attempt to partner together in a shared interest of Flemish nationalism, these two parties only account for about 30% of all the seats in Parliament. The King has appointed leaders to explore coalition options, but with Flanders favoring these two right-wing parties and Wallonia preferring the left-wing Socialist Party, it will take an awful lot of political compromise to establish a governing coalition. The process in 2010 took 589 days before a government was formed, so if this time is as politically divisive, the process may take several months as well.