Hemicycle of the Belgium Chamber of Representatives. (Photo by Thierry Monasse/Getty Images)

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Belgium: The crumbling of the establishment has run its course

The crumbling of the Belgian establishment is a decades-long phenomenon, though discontent has reached boiling point ahead of next month's vote


It might be tempting to point to themes dominating discourse in the European Union and connect failures to “Brussels”, or European institutions, but that, in a Belgian context, would be to miss important nuances.

EU policy on agriculture, migration and energy, for example, is a major element in any election debate, and the bloc is often the cause of discontent.

While the three examples above also apply to Belgium, it is important to keep a broader perspective. The crumbling of the Belgian establishment is a decades-long phenomenon.

Since the Second World War, Belgium, as with many other European countries, has been governed by the three “traditional” parties.

Christian Democrat dominance

Leo Tindemans was one of the leading figures of Christian Democracy in Belgium. (Photo by ZIK Images/United Archives via Getty Images)

Christian Democrats have dominated the Belgian political sphere, with the second-biggest bloc being the Socialists. A third partner, the Liberals, could become kingmakers and decide whether the country will have a more Conservative or more progressive government.

Christian Democrats were so powerful, they could regularly form governments with absolute majorities on their own.

Yet since 1950 (when the Christian Democrats scored just over 60 per cent in Flanders alone), they have been in a steady decline, to the point where they garnered just 8.89 per cent of the Belgian vote in 2019.

When taking the results of the other two traditional parties into account, a seismic shift has taken place.

In 1950, the three traditional parties combined represented 90 per cent of the electorate in Belgium. In 2019, it was just under 45 per cent.

Conversely, the two biggest parties in Belgium now are right-wing nationalists that want to split up the country, earning 16.03 per cent (N-VA) and 11.95 per cent (Vlaams Belang) of the votes each in 2019.

Since the 1990s, Flemish nationalists and Greens have succeeded in breaking into the political firmament, recently joined by Marxists, in particular in Wallonia.

Fault line-model

A symbol of the ‘waffle iron politics’, The Ronquieres Inclined Plane, a canal in the province of Hainaut, Wallonia, 1968, was built at huge cost but had little use. (Photo by BIPS/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Political dynamics have been explained using a model of “fault lines”. According to political scientists and sociologists, three main axes divided Belgian politics: Catholicism versus “free thinking” liberals; Flanders versus Wallonia; and capital versus labour.

Political balancing acts among these three axes shaped Belgium.

This was also a blueprint for pacification, as competing groups and communities were permanently negotiating over political outcomes and had to work together to fix things.

Belgium was thus characterised by what became known as the “political-ideological pillarisation”: the vertical division of citizens into groups based on religion and their associated political beliefs.

Each pillar had its own social institutions and social organisations: newspapers, political parties, trade unions, banks, schools, hospitals, universities, youth organisations, health care. A similar situation also existed in the Netherlands.

Government spending was characterised by “Waffle-iron politics”, the concept of giving money to groups not because they needed it but because another group had been given money.

Typical examples of this included what were essentially useless infrastructure projects in Wallonia to compensate for what were vital investments in Flemish ports and highways, when it developed as a European economic hub.


A young Filip Dewinter, leader of the Vlaams Blok political party, now Vlaams Belang, speaks on October 6, 2002. (Photo by Paul O’ Driscoll/Getty Images)

Over time, citizens started to see this model as a disadvantage, deeming the whole of Belgium costly, sluggish and ineffective, as every ‘pillarised’ group needed the means to survive while almost nothing was based on sound economics.

On top of that, society simply changed. People developed different political demands, ideologies evolved, individualism grew and new themes emerged.

Flemish nationalism gained ground, opposition against ever-rising numbers of migrants entering the country grew, Belgium was increasingly seen as badly organised and environmentalist issues became more important.

Globalisation and Europeanisation also weighed in.

In essence, historically speaking, Belgian consensus meant that the political balance was a financial deal. This dynamic explains the crippling debt Belgium has amassed since the 1970s.

Today, buying off entire parts of society has become close to impossible, especially when Belgium’s financial situation is in a bad condition.

The nationalist, separatist movement in Flanders now believes that the Belgium governments rules ‘against’ the democratic majority, the Flemish. The movement also believes the current elite is no longer capable of governing given that Flanders has become economically stronger and culturally more self-aware.

No one seems to like the status quo and the entrenched partitocracy, a system where political parties – or their presidents to be more specific – hold all the power.

On June 9, we will know if the incumbents have succeeded again and, if the establishment succeeds, what more they can do other than offer an institutional logjam.