The Belgians in the run-up to elections
When differences and parties multiply
This historical perspective is filled out by an examination of the history of election results, and of the development of the contending parties. Pierre Verjans and Geoffroy Matagne (ULg) show that Belgium gradually changed from a country with a two-party political system (also called “bipartisan”, opposing Catholics to Liberals, and expressing a conflict between a politically powerful Church and the nation-state) to a country with a “multiparty” system, based on many different political oppositions, the plurality of parties being sustained by the extreme nature of the Belgian proportional voting system. During the last legislative elections on June 13, 2010, no fewer than 12 parties received votes. Ten of them received a number of votes considered significant, that is, giving them more than four seats in a chamber with 150 elected members. The increasing complexity of the political landscape goes a long way toward explaining why it got harder and harder for Belgium to come up with a governing coalition following any given election: the elections of June 2010 were not immediately followed by the formation of a government, and in fact not until more than 500 days had gone by, in December 2011, was a government successfully cobbled together – a world record ofr political periods of limbo.
Will we ever get finished voting?
The second section of the book unfolds a sort of panorama of the actors in the electoral process and their particular roles. Who is eligible to vote? Who is eligible to be elected to office, under what conditions? How are electoral lists put together, how are political parties created, why do they sometimes fade away? A more dynamic perspective is adopted in the third section, which concerns itself with campaigns for office. This section sets forth rules for campaign financing, and the rules that govern the operation of the parties that solicit our votes. Other, more specific things are also explained, such as the mechanisms whereby the state makes itself accessible to the media, and the complex implications generated by frequent polling on policy questions and who people intend to vote for.
The fourth section penetrates into the matter of technical mechanisms that operate so that the election of representatives can take place – the heart of an electoral system. In this section the basis of the proportional system is explained, and the likely consequences of a hypothetical changeover by Belgium to a system based on election majorities (the method used in France). Here we see questions about the obligation to vote, and the “rhythm” of elections. IF we were to have elections that occurred only reasonably frequently – shouldn’t we synchronise elections at different levels? In this regard Frédéric Bouhon (ULg) points out that Belgium already has a degree of synchronisation. Comunal elections occur along with provincial elections; the Parliaments of the linguistic communities and the regions hold elections at the same time as the European Parliament. Nonetheless the extreme frequency of elections in Belgium, due to absence of synchronisation between national elections (Federal elections) and elections for “federated” entities (the Regions and the linguistic communities), is often thought to be responsible for various problems. Voters are sometimes uncertain as to what is really at stake in a given election, and are frankly turned off by the frequency with which they are called to vote. And at times, candidates are unhelpful in this regard. Some candidates seem to have a hard time aligning their campaigns with the legislative possibilities of the body to which they seek election. In other cases, members of a Parliament or ministers in a government at one institutional level or another may campaign for an office at another level of government (they may not even intend to really occupy the seat) – all this while continuing to be responsible for the duties of their present office.