Belgium - Political background

Centuries of rule by the Spanish, Austrian, French, and Dutch ended in 1830, when Belgium won its independence. The country became a constitutional monarchy in which sovereign power theoretically lay with the monarch. Since 1993, the head of state has been King Albert II, son of the popular and long reigning (1951–93) Baudouin I. Like all Western European monarchies, the focus of Belgian politics is its Parliament. In the 1990s, the Belgian Parliament was reorganized and reduced in size. The Parliament is bicameral, with a Chamber of Representatives having 150 seats and a Senate having 72 seats. The Chamber is directly elected, with proportional representation. Forty members of the Senate are elected in the same fashion, while 31 are elected indirectly. Elections for Parliament must be held at least every four years. Voting is compulsory. In 1981, the minimum voting age was lowered from 21 to 18.

Belgium has a multiparty system as a result of its linguistic diversity and its system of proportional representation. In the June 1999 elections, nine parties received sufficient votes to be considered important in the political process. For nearly three decades, three principal "families" of parties have received the vast majority of electoral support: the Christian Democrats, the Socialist Party, and the Liberal Democrats. Since the 1970s, each of these parties has divided formally into French- and Flemish-speaking branches. In the 1990s, two new parties emerged: the Ecolos (Francophone Greens), and Vlaams Blok. Vlaams Blok, though founded in 1977, was winning increased support in the 1990s among those interested in Flemish independence.

The June 1999 elections saw an upheaval in Belgian politics. Political scandals and the perception of poorly managed government led to the ousting of the coalition of Christian Democrat Jean-Luc Dehaene. The temporary escape from prison of a notorious pedophile revealed deep discord among community and national police forces and caused a public outcry. A series of bribery and corruption charges against high-ranking officials, yielding a number of convictions in December 1998, brought the long-powerful Flemish Christian Democratic Party (CVP) of Dehaene into disrepute. The final blow against the government came in early June 1999, when health inspectors discovered that dioxin, a cancer-causing agent, was present in chicken feed. The European Union (EU) charged the Belgian government with covering up information about the presence of dioxin in the food chain and banned the sale of Belgian chicken in EU-member states. The long-ruling Christian Democrats were thrown out of office. The Liberals, traditionally ranking third behind the CVP and the Socialists, prevailed with the largest number of votes. Not since 1937 had the Liberals been able to name a member of their party as the head of government. Guy Verhofstadt replaced Dehaene as prime minister on 12 July 1999.

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