Belgian politics: the end of the “big six”?

Combine the words “Belgian” and “politics” in one phrase, and most foreigners will answer by rolling their eyes, stating that “it’s just too complicated to be understood”. But why exactly does it happen to be so? Let’s try a brief overview of the different political parties currently operating in Belgium.

Back in the 19th century things were a lot easier: two main parties took turns in being at the steering wheel. On the one hand, the Catholic party represented the interests of the (at times very clerical) nobility and bourgeoisie. The Liberal party, on the other hand, became the incarnation of the anti-clerical bourgeoisie, enjoying membership of Protestants and of many French-school freemasons up to this day. Let’s also remember that the right to vote was restricted to those who paid a certain amount in tax, making the electorate incredibly small.

Things started to change at the turn of the century. Socialist deputies were first elected at the end of the 19th century, and the Catholic party became increasingly divided over labour rights. Adolf Daens, a priest from Aalst, got elected to parliament as an independent and paved the way for a more left-leaning tendency within the Catholic party. After the First World War and the introduction of general (male) suffrage, the Socialist party entered Parliament as the eternal kingmakers, establishing the three “traditional” parties we still know up to this day: Christian Democrats (the former Catholic party), right-wing Liberals and Socialists. Coalition governments now became the new norm.

This “traditional trio” was soon joined by the Flemish-nationalists, who managed to win several urban seats in the aftermath of the First World War. Their stance towards Nazi Germany in the Second World War still divides the Flemish-nationalist movement to this day: in general, those who favoured collaborating with the Germans ended up in the Flemish-nationalist extreme right party (Vlaams Belang), and those who claimed more autonomy without collaboration ended up in the moderate right-wing Flemish-nationalist party (Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie, NVA).

After the Second World War, the linguistic division of Belgium along the linguistic divide (“taalgrens/frontière linguistique”, see our previous article) really took off, resulting in a split of the “traditional trio” parties along regional lines. The Christian Democrats were divided on ideological bases as well: in Flanders, they evolved into the more right-leaning CD&V (Christen Democratisch & Vlaams), whereas in the French-speaking territories, they turned into the left-of-centre cdH (centre democrat et Humaniste). The Liberal party evolved into two contemporary right-wing parties: the French-speaking MR (Mouvement Reformateur) and the Flemish-speaking Open VLD (Open Vlaamse Liberale Democraten). The same thing occurred within the Socialist party, which became the Flemish-speaking SP.A (Socialistische Partij Anders) and the PS (Parti socialiste). The “traditional trio” thereby became the “big six”.

The Belgian political landscape has therefore been dominated by a large number of parties driven by different ideologies and languages since the 1980s. The entry of both French-speaking and Dutch-speaking ecologists (called Ecolo and Groen! respectively) drove the total number of parties in the federal parliament up to ten. However, up to very recently, you still needed only two of the “traditional trio” parties (Christian Democrats, right-wing Liberals and Socialists) to make a federal government coalition, particularly since these “big six” (CD&V, cdH, MR, Open VLD, SP.A and PS) tended to control the vast majority of seats, leaving only a small number to the four small parties (Vlaams Belang, N-VA, Ecolo and Groen!).

The recent breakthrough of N-VA in 2010 and 2014 was the first time that neither of the “big six” (the former “traditional trio”) became the single biggest party in the federal parliament, making the formation of a government in both years rather troublesome. However, the quick adaption of that “non-traditional” party and its ability to quickly forge a right-wing coalition with CD&V, MR and Open VLD surprised many. As such, the Belgian political landscape is shifting, and it remains to be seen whether Belgium will return to “big six” business-as-usual in the future.

David Jan BOSSCHAERT

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