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Federal Elections in Belgium - Elections to the Senate and the Chamber of Representatives
by Manuel Álvarez-Rivera

Belgium held a general election on Sunday, May 25, 2014, on the same day as regional elections and elections to the European Parliament. An overview of the proportional representation systems used to choose members of both houses of the Belgian legislature - the Senate and the Chamber of Representatives - is presented here. However, only members of the Chamber of Representatives were chosen in the 2014 federal election, as detailed below.

National- and college- or constituency-level results are available here (and also in CSV format) for the following Senate and Chamber elections:

              Senate       Chamber of Representatives      
      May 25, 2014               Results    Election Map      
      June 13, 2010       Results       Results    Election Map      
      June 10, 2007       Results       Results    Election Map      
      May 18, 2003       Results       Results    Election Map      
      June 13, 1999       Results       Results            
      May 21, 1995       Results       Results            

May 25, 2014 Chamber of Representatives Election Map: Majority Party by Canton

Antwerp Antwerp Brussels-Capital East Flanders Hainaut Hainaut Flemish Brabant Liège Limburg Limburg Luxembourg Namur Walloon Brabant West Flanders West Flanders Brussels-Capital

The election statistics presented in this space come from reports and data files issued by Belgium's Federal Public Services Home Affairs as well as the Elections 2007, Elections 2010 and Elections 2014 websites. Note that 1995 and 1999 Chamber of Representatives elections results are presented for the eleven electoral constituencies in place between 2003 and 2010.

May 22-25, 2014 European election results are available here; the Elections 2014 website also has detailed European election results for Belgium, and Electoral Panorama has a cantonal-level election map.


General Aspects of the Electoral System

The federal legislature of the Kingdom of Belgium consists of a lower house, the Chamber of Representatives, and an upper house, the Senate. The Chamber has greater legislative power than the Senate, particularly after the sixth state reform of 2011, which will make the Senate an appointed body and severely curtail its remaining powers.

The Chamber of Representatives is composed of 150 members directly elected by universal adult suffrage every five years (four years prior to 2014). Chamber seats are filled in eleven multi-member constituencies, where political parties present lists of candidates. Voters may indicate a preference for one or more candidates in a list; voting is compulsory in national elections.

Chamber seats are allocated among the constituencies in proportion to their population. Nine of Belgium's ten provinces are constituencies in their own right, while prior to 2012 the constituencies of Leuven (Louvain) and Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde spanned the province of Flemish Brabant and the Brussels-Capital Region (which is entirely surrounded by Flemish Brabant but does not belong to it). However, under the terms of Belgium's sixth state reform, Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde was split in 2012; Brussels-Capital became a constituency on its own right, while Halle-Vilvoorde merged with Leuven to form the constituency of Flemish Brabant. Nevertheless, a special arrangement will be in place for the newly-created electoral canton of Sint-Genesius-Rode (Rhode-Saint-Genèse): its six municipalities, located in Flemish Brabant territory bordering Brussels, have a large francophone population with attendant language facilities, and voters there will have the option of casting a ballot for either a list running in Flemish Brabant or a list from Brussels-Capital, which is officially bilingual but overwhelmingly French-speaking.

Since 1900, elections to the Chamber of Representatives have been carried out by the largest average method of proportional representation (PR), which was conceived by Victor D'Hondt, a Belgian mathematician. Seats are distributed in each constituency among lists that receive at least five percent of all valid votes cast in the constituency. Parties could previously combine their lists for the distribution of seats in the constituencies of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde, Leuven and Walloon Brabant, where the five percent threshold was not applied; however, this provision was repealed following the division of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde.

The Senate was previously composed of 71 members, of which forty were directly chosen by the electorate, twenty-one were appointed by the parliaments of the linguistic communities, and ten were co-opted by the elected and community-appointed senators. In addition, the children of the Belgian monarch or, in their absence, the Belgian descendants of the branch of the royal family called on to reign, were senators by right at the age of eighteen.

Senate elections were held every four years, at the same time as elections to the Chamber of Representatives. Popularly elected senators were chosen in two electoral colleges: one formed by voters in Wallonia and French-speaking voters in the constituency of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde, the other by voters in Flanders and Dutch-speaking voters in Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde. The French electoral college chose fifteen Senate members, while the Dutch college elected twenty-five. Seats in both colleges were allocated according to the D'Hondt method among lists polling at least five percent of the valid college vote.

However, as previously noted voters will no longer choose members of the Senate: following the 2014 general election, the Senate will have 50 members from federal entities, designated by the regional and community parliaments, and an additional ten members co-opted by senators from the federal entities.

Members of the Chamber of Representatives and the Senate represent the nation, and not only those who elected them.

The Political Parties

Belgium's political parties began to develop in the mid-19th century, when the Catholic and Liberal parties emerged as the country's two major political forces. In 1893, Belgium adopted universal male suffrage at the age of 25 (although electors who met certain income and educational qualifications were entitled to a plural vote), and the following year the Socialists (organized since 1885 as the Belgian Workers' Party) gained parliamentary representation, becoming the second-largest party in the Chamber of Representatives, while the Liberals began to decline rapidly. However, the switch from majority voting to proportional representation at the turn of the century saved the Liberals from political extinction, and the party staged a comeback in the years before World War I. Meanwhile, the ruling Catholic Party held an absolute majority in the Chamber of Representatives from 1884 until 1919, when plural voting was abandoned in favor of one-man, one-vote universal suffrage at the age of 21; women would not gain the right to vote in national elections until 1948. In the years between the two world wars, the Liberals fell behind the Socialists, who became one of the Belgium's two major parties, along with the Catholics. Catholic-Liberal coalition governments or Catholic-Liberal-Socialist national union cabinets ruled the country during most of this time period.

The Great Depression of 1929-39 led to the rise of extremist parties in Belgium. In the 1936 general election, the fascist Rexists scored a major breakthrough, and both the fascist-leaning Flemish National Union (VNV) and the Communist Party (which had split from the Belgian Workers' Party in the years after World War I) made significant advances as well. However, after the national union government of Prime Minister Paul Van Zeeland implemented a number of major social reforms (among them the 40-hour work week), the Rexist Party suffered a major setback in the 1939 parliamentary election, although VNV improved upon its 1936 showing and the Communists held on to their seat gains.

After the end of World War II, during which Nazi Germany occupied Belgium from 1940 to 1944, the Catholic Party and the Belgian Workers' Party were replaced by the Social Christian Party/Christian People's Party (PSC/CVP) and the Belgian Socialist Party (PSB/BSP), respectively, while the far-right parties disappeared from the political scene. In the 1946 general election, the Christian Democratic PSC/CVP emerged as the largest party, well ahead of the Socialists but short of an absolute majority, while the Communist Party had its best election showing in history and finished in third place, ahead of the Liberals. The Communists were a coalition partner in several governments between 1944 and 1947, when the Cold War led to their exclusion from power; the party declined markedly in subsequent general elections. From 1947 to 1954 the Christian Democrats were part of every government, first in coalition with the Socialists until 1949, and then with the Liberals until 1950, when they won an absolute majority in the Chamber of Representatives and formed several single-party governments. However, in 1954 PSC/CVP lost its Chamber majority, and the Socialists formed a coalition government with the Liberals that ruled the country until 1958, when the Christian Democrats returned to power, ruling in coalition with the Liberals until 1961, and then with the Socialist Party until 1965.

After 1960, Belgian politics became increasingly dominated by ethno-linguistic tensions between the Dutch-speaking Flemings in the north and the French-speaking Walloons in the south. In the 1965 general election, both the Christian Democrats and the Socialists incurred in heavy losses, while the Liberals - since 1961 the Party of Liberty and Progress (PVV/PLP) - scored major gains, as did the Volksunie (VU; People's Union), which until then had been a minor Flemish nationalist party. The election was also notable for the emergence of a Brussels-based French-speaking party, the Francophones' Democratic Front (FDF). The Christian Democrats and the Socialists continued in office under a new coalition government, but the following year it was replaced by a PSC/CVP-PVV/PLP coalition cabinet that remained in power until 1968, when all three major parties lost ground in an early general election, while VU and FDF scored further gains, and the new Walloon Rally (RW) gained parliamentary representation. After the election, the Christian Democrats formed another coalition government with the Socialists.

Following the establishment of a linguistic border in 1962, which defined four linguistic regions (Dutch, French, German and the bilingual Brussels-Capital region), a 1970 constitutional reform provided for the creation of three communities (Flemish, French, and German-speaking) and three regions (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels); the Flemish and French communities were given autonomy in cultural matters, the use of language and certain educational matters. A further constitutional revision in 1980 established the political institutions of the communities and the Walloon region; the institutions of the Flemish region were merged with those of the Flemish community. In the process, all three major parties split along linguistic lines, which further complicated the formation of coalition governments. From 1973 to 1981, Belgium had eleven cabinets and four general elections. The Christian Democrats continued to be part of every government, usually with the Socialists, and sometimes with the Liberals and one or more of the various linguistic political groups (VU, FDF, RW).

In late 1981, CVP leader Wilfried Martens, who had presided over four short-lived governments between 1979 and 1981, formed a coalition cabinet composed of his party, PSC, PVV and the francophone Liberal Reform Party (PRL), which remained in office for nearly four years. The four-party Christian Democratic-Liberal coalition continued in power following early general elections in 1985 and 1987, but in 1988 Martens formed a Christian Democratic-Socialist-People's Union coalition government in order to secure passage of further constitutional reforms, which devolved additional powers to the communities and regions (the most important being national education) and established the institutions of the Brussels-Capital region. However, all major parties lost ground in the 1991 general election, with the exception of PVV, which gained an additional seat, while Belgium's two Green parties - the Flemish Agalev and the francophone Ecolo, which had been represented in Parliament since 1981 - made significant gains, and the far-right, anti-immigration Vlaams Blok (VB; Flemish Bloc) overtook the People's Union as the main Flemish nationalist force.

The following year, Jean-Luc Dehaene (CVP) formed a Christian Democratic-Socialist coalition government, which embarked on a major constitutional reform that transformed Belgium into a federal state. The 1992 St. Michael's Agreement, approved by Parliament the following year with the support of both Green parties and the People's Union, also provided for the popular election of the Flemish and Walloon regional assemblies, the partition of Brabant province into Flemish Brabant and Walloon Brabant, and the reduction of the Chamber of Representatives and the Senate from 212 and 184 members to 150 and 71, respectively.

After the 1995 general election, Prime Minister Dehaene formed a new Christian Democratic-Socialist coalition cabinet that continued in office until the 1999 parliamentary election, when the Liberal parties outpolled the Christian Democrats and the Socialists, who lost their overall majority in the Chamber of Representatives. Flemish Liberals and Democrats (VLD; formerly PVV) leader Guy Verhofstadt formed a six-party, "rainbow coalition" government of Flemish and French Liberals, Socialists and Greens, which presided over a further round of decentralization in 2001 that transferred responsibility over agricultural policy, foreign trade, development and cooperation, and control over communal and provincial councils from the national government to the regions.

Prime Minister Verhofstadt - Belgium's first Liberal head of government in more than half a century - won a major victory in the 2003 general election, in which the Socialists and both Liberal parties - VLD and the francophone Reform Movement (MR) - posted strong gains, while the once-dominant Christian Democrats - Christian Democratic & Flemish (CD&V) and the Humanist Democratic Center (CDH) - fared badly, as did the Greens (especially Agalev, which lost its parliamentary representation) and one of the People's Union successors, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA). After the election, Verhofstadt formed a Liberal-Socialist coalition government.

In 2004, the Supreme Court of Belgium outlawed the far-right Flemish Bloc - which had scored substantial gains in the 1999 and 2003 parliamentary elections - on the grounds it violated anti-racism laws. However, party leaders promptly established Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest); like its dissolved predecessor, the new party advocates the establishment of an independent Flemish republic.

In the June 2007 general election, CD&V and N-VA staged a major comeback, and a coalition of the two Flemish parties won the largest number of seats in the Chamber of Representatives. Meanwhile, the Liberal-Socialist coalition government lost its parliamentary majority, and Prime Minister Verhofstadt tendered his resignation. After the election, CD&V leader Yves Leterme began negotiations to form a new coalition government, but he proved unable to overcome differences between the French- and Dutch-speaking parties - which were bitterly divided over his proposals to devolve more powers to the regions - and in December 2007 Leterme gave up in his attempt to form a government. As the political stalemate threatened to split Belgium along linguistic lines, the country's major political parties agreed to back an interim cabinet headed by outgoing Prime Minister Verhofstadt, who had remained as caretaker head of government. Finally, in March 2008 - nine months after the election - the Flemish and French Christian Democrats and Liberals, along with the French Socialists reached an agreement to form a coalition government headed by Leterme.

However, following allegations of political interference in the break-up of Fortis Bank, Leterme submitted his resignation in December 2008 - just nine months after taking office. King Albert II accepted Leterme's resignation shortly thereafter, and appointed Chamber of Representatives Speaker Herman Van Rompuy as head of government. Belgium's major political parties remained in the new government, which won a parliamentary vote of confidence in January 2009. Van Rompuy remained in office until November 2009, when he was chosen president of the European Council; former prime minister Yves Leterme - who had served as foreign minister in Van Rompuy's cabinet - then formed a second coalition government composed of the same parties represented in the previous cabinet. However, in April 2010 Open VLD - the Flemish Liberals - pulled out of the government over the future of the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde electoral constituency, and Leterme resigned after only five months in power.

In an early general election held in June 2010, the New Flemish Alliance defeated their erstwhile Flemish Christian Democrat allies and topped the poll not only in Flanders but in the entire country, while the French Socialists became Wallonia's largest party and arrived in second place at the federal level, displacing the Reform Movement. Francophone Socialist leader Elio di Rupo subsequently sought to form a seven-party coalition government, but coalition talks collapsed at the beginning of the following September. In due course, Belgium's government crisis lasted for a record 541 days, until di Rupo was finally able to form a six-party coalition cabinet of Flemish and French Socialists, Liberals and Christian Democrats in December 2011. He became Belgium's first Socialist and French-speaking head of government in more than three decades, as well as the country's first openly gay prime minister. The new government agreed to implement a comprehensive state reform, which among other things entailed splitting the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde constituency, devolving more power to the regions and transforming the Senate into an appointed (rather than partly elected) body.

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Last update: June 6, 2014.