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Journal 5: Belgium's failure
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Journal 5: Belgium's failure


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  • 1. Belgium’s  consociational  structure:  the  reason  for  the  failure  of   the  current  federal  state?   Journal  entry  15/10/2010   Steven  Lauwers       Lijphart   states   that   ‘Belgium   can   legitimately   claim   to   be   the   most   thorough   example   of   consociational   democracy   i,   the   type   of   democracy   that   is   most   suitable   for  deeply  divided  societies’  ii  Is  this  still  the  true?  And  what  does  that  mean?       In   the   first   century   of   its   existence,   Belgium   society   was   organized   in   pillars,   based   on   ideology.   Did   the   move   away   from   pillars   in   the   last   50   years   as   a   means   to   organize   society   mean   Belgium   ceased   to   be   a   consociational   democracy?  No.  Let  me  elaborate:     While   the   country   did   indeed   move   towards   becoming   a   federal   state,   the   cleavages   in   society   still   exist,   only   at   different   levels:   the   country   moved   from   and  ideological  to  territorial  segmentation.  Zürn  argues  that  ‘(…)  in  comparative   politics  that  where  there  is  no  sufficiently  stable  national  identity  it  is  better  to  give   precedence   to   bargaining   and   ‘consociational’   procedures   rather   than   majority   decisions.”   iii   A   very   important   turning   point   in   the   political   history   of   Belgium   was   the   constitutional   reform   of   1970.   iv   Most   importantly,   the   country   was   divided   into   language   communities,   not   only   increasing   the   division   of   the   country   on   the   basis   of   language,   but   also   restructuring   politics:   each   language   group   has   its   own   elites,   its   own   representatives   -­‐   Belgians   can’t   elect   a   ‘Belgian’   party   anymore.   Various   mechanisms   have   been   put   in   place,   to   make   sure   the   Flemish   part   cannot   use   its   demographic   majority   to   impose   their   will   on   the   Francophone   part   (thus   obliging   Belgium   to   find   a   solution   through   compromises).     As   K.   Deschouwer   nicely   phrases   it,   ‘(w)e   can   thus   explain   the   success   rate   of   conflict  management  in  Belgium  by  looking  at  the  institutional  context  obliging  the   elites  –  a  fairly  small  number  of  top  politicians  –  to  rely  on  complex  compromises  
  • 2. for   getting   rid   of   mutual   vetoes   in   a   system   where   majoritarian   decision-­making   is   impossible  and  where  ongoing  confrontational  tactics  are  counterproductive.’  v       It  is  interesting  to  conclude  that  because  of  how  the  state  is  structured,  there  is   no   possibility   for   majoritarian   decision   in   the   national   government   and   parliament,  it  seems  the  only  reason  for  finding  a  solution  is  the  extremely  high   price   of   non-­‐agreement.   And   that   is   exactly   what   we   see   now,   and   saw   in   the   previous  elections  as  well:  the  formation  of  a  new  government  is  the  moment  at   which   the   elites   force   each   other   to   accept   negotiations,   causing   the   “quest”   for   a   compromise   to   paralyze   the   country   for   months.   I   would   even   go   as   far   as   arguing   that   exactly   this   consociational   structure   has   caused   the   cleavages   to   expand,  rather  than  providing  a  “stable”  democracy.       -­   If   I   had   more   than   500   words,   I   would   love   to   elaborate   on   how   the   EU   also   qualifies   as   a   consociational   democracy   –   interestingly   Belgium   not   only   has   the   presidency   of   the   European   Council,   Brussels   is   also   houses   key   institutions   of   the   EU.                                                                                                                       i  Government  by  elite  cartel  to  turn  a  democracy  with  a  fragmented  political  culture  into  a  stable   democracy,  Lijphart  A  (1969).  Consociational  Democracy.   ii  Lijphart  A  (1981).  Conflict  and  Coexistence  in  Belgium.  The  Dynamics  of  a  Culturally  Divided   Society.  p.  1-­‐12   iii  Zürn  M.  (2000).  Democratic  Governance  beyond  the  nation-­‐state:  The  EU  and  other   international  institutions.  p.  192.   iv  Deschouwer  K.,  And  the  peace  goes  on?  Consociational  democracy  and  Belgian  politics  in  the   twenty-­‐first  century.  p.  901-­‐02   v  Deschouwer  K.  Idem.  906.