Political parties in Belgium reflect the country's linguistic and regional divide, meaning traditional parties are split in two and present different candidates at every election.
As a consequence, the main European political families – EPP, PES, ELDR and the Greens – are represented by both French-speaking and Dutch-speaking parties. The large number of parties implies that no single entity stands a chance of winning power alone, meaning that parties have to work with each other to form coalition governments.
A regional poll?
The present EU election campaign in Belgium has largely been overshadowed by polls for the country's three regional parliaments (Brussels, Flanders and Wallonia). Both campaigns last a month and are not particularly visible, except for the appearance of billboards in certain locations strictly designated by the local authorities.
Expatriates from EU countries can vote in the Belgian EU elections if they register, but not in elections to the regional parliament. Meanwhile, even non-EU residents can vote in the municipal elections if they register to do so.
The political programmes of the parties are not widely known by the electorate, according to analysts. Some information can be found on leaflets delivered to citizens by post, but the parties obviously do not want to overburden the electorate so they keep such messages short. Most of the content of the leaflets focuses on local issues rather than EU policies. Little space, if any, is dedicated to the EU elections. Citizens interested in learning more have no choice other than to consult the political parties' websites.
Voting is compulsory in Belgium, meaning that more than 90% of the population participates in the EU elections.
Belgian voters are given five options when voting. They may:
- Vote for a list as a whole, thereby registering their approval of the order established by the party they vote for;
- Vote for one or more individual candidates belonging to one party, regardless of his/her ranking on the list. This is a 'preference vote';
- Vote for one or more of the 'alternates' (substitutes);
- Vote for one or more candidates, and one or more alternates, all from the same party, or;
- Leave the ballot invalid or blank so no-one receives a vote.
Voting in Belgium takes place almost entirely electronically on computers in the polling stations, which are usually located in schools. A few weeks before the actual election, every Belgian over the age of 18 receives a voting card giving details of the voting bureau where he/she must cast his/her vote. Computers are installed in private cubicles.
'Old faces' and 'heavyweights'
According to the party lists for the EU elections, at least seven current MEPs have an excellent chance of joining the next European Parliament, as they rank highly on the lists: Frédérique Ries from the Reformist Movement (MR), Frank Van Hecke and Philip Claeys from Vlaams Belang, Annemie Neyts-Uyttebroeck and Dirk Sterckx from VLD, Veronique de Keyser from PS, Bart Staes from Groen!-EFA.
Among the new arrivals is one EU heavyweight, former Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, who leads the VLD list. As Jean-Luc Dehaene (CD&V), another former minister and current MEP is also running, the Belgian press dubbed the contest "a duel of giants" (EurActiv 15/05/09). Moreover, Louis Michel, currently serving as the EU's development commissioner, leads the MR list. But none of the three are certain to take the job of MEP and may prefer to pursue more appealing careers instead.
Most Belgian parties have published lengthy European programmes on their websites (see links below under 'political parties'), which are in many respects similar to the political programmes and manifestoes of the European families. Responding to the world economic crisis features prominently in their programmes, alongside social issues, addressing citizens' security and keeping immigration under control, promoting policies to combat climate change, providing better care for an ageing population, and ensuring that Europe occupies a dignified position in the world.
Several parties single out the role that Belgium will have to play in the second half of 2010, when it is set to assume the rotating EU presidency for six months. Belgium has already indicated that it will seek to restore the balance between the EU institutions (EurActiv 21/04/09). Indeed, this seems to be a national priority, as several parties have expressed similar ambitions in their programmes.
In its programme, as well as in leaflets distributed throughout the Brussels region, Vlaams Belang has placed heavy emphasis on the "threat" of Islamisation in the European capital and the "hidden agendas" of Muslim religious organisations in Belgium.
Problems have arisen during the election campaign between Francophone and Dutch-speaking parties.
Officially, Flanders residents can only vote for Flemish candidates, and in Wallonia residents may only choose French-speaking candidates. Residents of the Brussels area can choose either, as the region is bilingual.
But in Affligem and Halle, which are suburbs of Brussels but located on Flemish territory, politicians have objected to the presence of French-speaking campaigners and French-language billboard space has been denied by the authorities (EurActiv 05/05/09). In Affligem, French-language posters that had already been put up were covered with white paper.
Controversy has long raged in Belgium over bilingual electoral districts, and some Dutch-speaking municipalities have decided to boycott the European Parliament elections.
Belgian capital Brussels forms an enclave in the Flanders region, and is mainly inhabited by French-speakers despite being officially bilingual. The suburbs, where the two municipalities are located, are predominantly made up of Dutch-speakers, although around 100,000 francophones live there.
Francophone party Humanist Democratic Centre (CDH) condemned the measures taken as an attack on "the fundamental rights of French speakers on the periphery [of Brussels]".
The municipalities of Merchtem, Beersel, Kapelle-op-den-Bos, Machelen, Ternat, Meise and Grimbergen also decided not to provide billboard space, in the hope of "eliminating" French-language posters. In Steenokkerzeel, Ternat and Grimbergen, stickers were distributed for placing on postboxes, requesting that "only Dutch flyers are accepted".
The election has seen the ProBruxsel party, which claims to be "the first and only bilingual political party in Belgium", challenge the legal obligation to present only Dutch- or French-speaking lists. They have registered on both lists, adding the letters 'F' and 'N' on the French and Dutch lists respectively. The party seeks to promote the cosmopolitan nature of Brussels and prevent what it sees as a black-white linguistic divide reigning in the city (EurActiv 12/05/09).
Corruption and paedophile scandals
As is often the case in Belgium, a number of corruption scandals have erupted ahead of the poll. The press in Brussels revealed on 10 May that Didier Donfut, a socialist politician close to Parti Socialiste leader Elio di Rupo and social minister in the Walloon government, was receiving a monthly sum of 13,000 euros for consulting local authorities via a front organisation. Donfut was forced to resign.
Another sleeze row simultaneously engulfed Olivier Chastel, number two on the MR's European election list and currently a high-ranking diplomat in charge of preparing the Belgian EU Presidency in the second half of 2010. In his previous capacity in the Walloon government, Chastel channelled 30,000 euros of subsidies per year for four years to an NGO run by his half-brother. Chastel has denied any wrongdoing, but the controversy is yet to die down.
Moreover, the deputy mayor of Mons, Richard Biefnot (PS), was indicted on 13 May as part of an international crackdown on exchanging images of child pornography. He was quickly fired and excluded from the Socialist Party. Nevertheless, controversy is still raging over the severance package of 140,000 euros which he can claim under the terms of his work contract.