Freedom in the World
The governing coalition collapsed in April 2010 after its component parties disagreed on proposed electoral changes in the bilingual Brussels region. Parliamentary elections were held in June, but the parties were unable to form a new majority coalition, and a caretaker government remained in place at year’s end.
Modern Belgium dates to 1830, when the largely Roman Catholic territory broke away from the mostly Protestant Netherlands and formed an independent constitutional monarchy. In the 20th century, Belgium became one of the founding members of the European Union (EU) and hosts the organization’s central administration in Brussels.
Ethnic and linguistic conflicts prompted a series of constitutional amendments in 1970, 1971, and 1993 that devolved considerable power from the central government to the three regions in the federation: French-speaking Wallonia in the south, Flemish-speaking Flanders in the north, and Brussels, the capital, where French and Flemish share the same official status. Cultural and economic differences between the regions have contributed to political rifts between Flemish and Francophone parties across the ideological spectrum, with the wealthier Flemish north seeking increased self-rule and reduced taxpayer support for the less prosperous Wallonia.Voting takes place along strict linguistic lines: except in the bilingual district encompassing Brussels, parties are only permitted to run in their respective linguistic regions.
In June 2007 parliamentary elections,Flanders premier Yves Leterme’s centrist Christian Democratic and Flemish (CDV) party—in an electoral bloc with the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA)—won 30 of 150 seats in the lower house. The remaining seats were divided among 10 other factions. Flemish and Walloon parties were unable to agree on coalition terms after an extraordinary 196 days of negotiations, and in December the king asked outgoing prime minister Guy Verhofstadt to form an interim government with the authority to act on pressing economic and other concerns.
In February 2008, a majority of political parties agreed on an outline for limited constitutional reform, which cleared the way for Leterme to become prime minister the following month. He was unable to consolidate support after taking office, however, and lawmakers began to leave the ruling coalition during the fall. Leterme’s government was ultimately brought down at the end of the year after being accused of interfering in a court case concerning the failed bank Fortis. The prime minister offered his resignation, and on December 30 the king swore in Herman Van Rompuy, also of the CDV, to replace him.
Van Rompuy was credited with calming the recent political instability, but partly as a result of this success, he was appointed as the first permanent president of the European Council, the EU’s intergovernmental decision-making body, in November 2009. Leterme returned as prime minister, and in April 2010 his government fell when his coalition partner, the Flemish Liberals and Democrats (VLD), pulled out. The coalition had disagreed on proposed changes to voting rules in the district encompassing Brussels.
In national elections held in June, the N-VA led with 27 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, and the Francophone Socialist Party (PS) placed second with 26 seats. Coalition negotiations again stalled, and the Leterme government remained in place in a caretaker capacity at year’s end.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
Belgium is an electoral democracy. Parliament consists of two houses: the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. The 150 members of the Chamber of Deputies are elected directly by proportional representation. There are 71 seats in the Senate, with 40 filled by direct popular vote and 31 by indirect vote. Members serve four-year terms in both houses. The prime minister, who is the leader of the majority party or coalition, is appointed by the monarch and approved by Parliament.The party system is highly fragmented, with separate Flemish and Walloon parties representing all traditional parties of the left and right.
The xenophobic Vlaams Blok party was banned in 2004 for violating the country’s antiracism laws. It changed its name to Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) and removed some of the more overtly racist elements from its platform. However, the party maintains its opposition to immigration and its commitment to an independent Flanders. In the 2010 elections, Vlaams Belang’s support dropped to 7.8 percent of the vote and 12 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, from 12 percent and 17 seats in 2007.
Corruption is relatively rare in Belgium, which was ranked 22 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedoms of speech and the press are guaranteed by the constitution and generally respected by the government. Belgians have access to numerous private media outlets. However, concentration of newspaper ownership has progressed in recent decades, leaving most of the country’s papers in the hands of a few corporations. A law on the protection of journalists’ sources was enacted in 2005. In early 2009, Belgian prosecutors dismissed a bribery complaint brought by the EU Anti-Fraud Office against Hans-Martin Tillack, a Brussels-based German journalist for Stern magazine. Tillack had been investigating EU-related fraud and corruption. The government does not limit access to the internet.
Freedom of religion is protected. About half of the country’s population identifies itself as Roman Catholic. Members of a number of minority religions have complained of discrimination by the government, which has been criticized for its characterization of some non-Catholic groups as “sects.” A 2008 report by the government-sponsored Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism found that skin color and clothing associated with Islam were the primary factors leading to societal discrimination in the country. In April 2010, the Chamber of Deputies approved a ban on the partial or total covering of the face in public locations; although it did not specifically mention the veils worn by some Muslim women, these were widely seen as the target. However, the Senate’s vote on the measure was delayed by the calling of new elections, and the issue remained unresolved at year’s end. The wearing of the niqab (facial veil) and burqa (head-to-toe covering) is already prohibited in several municipalities in Flanders. The government does not restrict academic freedom.
Freedom of association is guaranteed by law, except for groups that practice discrimination “overtly and repeatedly.” Freedom of assembly is also respected. About 58 percent of the workforce is unionized. Employers found guilty of firing workers because of union activities are required to reinstate the workers or pay an indemnity.
The judiciary is independent, and the rule of law generally prevails in civil and criminal matters. Although conditions in prisons and detention centers meet most international standards, many continue to suffer from overcrowding.
Specific antiracism laws penalize the incitement of discrimination, acts of hatred, and violence based on race, ethnicity, or nationality. However, there have been complaints about the treatment of rejected asylum seekers and illegal immigrants awaiting deportation, who have been held in unsanitary conditions in the Brussels national airport, sometimes for several months. The European Court of Human Rights in 2008 ordered Belgium to pay two Palestinian asylum seekers €15,000 ($22,000) each in damages for their detention in the airport in 2002. A 2009 government decision regularized 25,000 illegal immigrants.
The law provides for the free movement of citizens at home and abroad, and the government does not interfere with these rights. However, individual communities may expel Roma from city limits at the discretion of the local government, and in July 2010 it was reported that up to 700 Roma were forced to move from Flanders to Wallonia. In September, the International Federation of Human Rights submitted a complaint to the Council of Europe over the treatment of Roma in Belgium, especially concerning their housing conditions and social exclusion.
The government actively promotes equality for women. In 2003, it created the Institute for the Equality of Men and Women, which is empowered to initiate sex-discrimination lawsuits. In the 2010 elections, women won about 40 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies, and 43 percent of the seats in the Senate. Belgium is a destination and transit point for trafficked persons. However, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report, the country complies fully with the minimum standards for eliminating trafficking, including financing nongovernmental organizations that assist victims.