Almost exactly 3 years ago, we published this article: “Belgium has a problem with citizen participation”.

A bold title statement — and that was only the beginning. The article proceeded to unveil some of the reasons why our complex three-way state lagged behind its larger, louder neighbours in matters of democracy and citizen participation. The country’s complex electoral system and the Belgians’ consequential lukewarm political interest and quiet preference for immutable continuity made for a democratic ranking that was among the lowest in Western Europe. Ouch.

Three years later, it’s time to make the score. How have things evolved since we published this piece? Is Belgium still the naughty student among Europe’s established democracies? What do the numbers say?

The verdict: a “flawed” democracy

Our last piece based its main arguments on data provided by the Economist’s 9th Democracy Index Report, which cast a critical eye at the state of worldwide democracy up until the year 2016. According to this report, Belgium ranked 35th on the global democracy index, stranding behind countries like India, Botswana, and the United States at the dawn of its Trumpian era. This made Belgium the lowest-ranking country in Western Europe.

If, three years later, we take a look at the 12th edition of this Democracy Report, we see that Belgium now ranks 33rd. Good, sure, but barely a victory. With Italy taking place 35, we’re no longer Western Europe’s enfant terrible. But despite our improved ranking, the numbers don’t give us much to celebrate. Political participation (which includes party membership, adhesion to civil society NGOs, general interest in politics) has remained stagnant at 5.00 out of 10.00, a painfully low score.

Besides, if we take a closer look at Western Europe, we see that Belgium is (still) marked as a “flawed democracy”. This means that, while there are free elections and basic (and protected) civil liberties, “there are significant weaknesses in other aspects of democracy, including problems in governance, an underdeveloped political culture and low levels of political participation.” Belgium’s neighbours, including the Netherlands, France, Germany, and Luxembourg, are all considered “full” democracies.

According to these numbers, Belgium is not doing considerably better than 3 years ago. But why is that?

Democracy in global crisis

First of all, it’s important to note that the 2019 Democracy Index Report marked the worst average global score since it started creating these reports in 2006. It’s not just that Belgium is bad at democracy; it’s that democracy is struggling all over the globe and that it has become harder than ever to solidify it.

One of the main reasons for Belgium’s painful “flawed democracy” score is the fact that citizens’ trust in the traditional parties has remained low, which has served as wind under the wings of anti-establishment parties and groups. This has led to fragmentation and polarisation, which in turn has created “difficulties for government formation, leading (…) to uncomfortable coalitions or to governments which, once formed, struggled to remain stable and effective.”

The Belgian federal election in May 2019 split the country in two, highlighting the political differences between Flanders and Wallonia and creating a breeding ground for extremist movements to thrive. After all, Belgium is crisscrossed by social, linguistic and political fault-lines. And those fault-lines have a profound effect on the political landscape. At the point of writing this article, Belgium still hasn’t managed to form a viable coalition and is hence still lacking a federal government.

In a context of democratic decay, citizen participation is often cited as the best way to repair trust between citizens and their governments. It engages citizens to weigh in on local policy, help set priorities on the political agenda, and voice their opinions on important (local) topics. Surveys, participatory budgets, ideation, and polling are just a few of the different methods for governments and citizens can co-create their environment. But the lack of a federal government makes it hard for the Belgians to push for more transparency and participation at a federal level. And besides, there’s a historical sensitivity that plays a part in this, too.

Citizen consultation gone wrong: the Royal Question

Citizen participation generally has a tangible positive impact, but there are some rare cases of it turning sour. And if we dive into the history books, we see that one of the most notorious examples has rocked the foundations of, you guessed it: Belgium.

In 1950, Belgium was enthralled by the Royal Question. 18 days after Nazi-Germany had invaded Belgium in 1940 (despite a declaration of neutrality), King Leopold III commanded the army to surrender, reportedly fearing a German victory. This decision contravened the wishes of the government, which was determined to continue its fight alongside the French and British allies. The government subsequently stripped the monarch of his constitutional powers: as a ‘captive’, he’d be unable to govern. For 4 years, Leopold lived as a formal captive in his castle in Laeken, receiving courteous treatment from the Germans. In 1944, he was deported to Germany, where he was freed by the allied forces a year later.

After the war, a burning question divided the public debate: could Leopold III take up his royal duties again? While Leopoldists praised the King’s alleged aim to prevent further bloodshed, anti-Leopoldists cited, if not collaboration, at least a defeatism that was not only unconstitutional but also unfit for a king. The government decided to turn to its people, and a nation-wide citizen consultation was held to decide whether or not the King could return.

As it turned out, the results of the consultation largely coincided with the existing political and linguistic fault-lines. While 58% had voted in favour of the King, most of these votes came from Catholic Flanders. In Flanders, 78% supported the King’s return, in stark contrast to only 48% in Brussels and 42% in Wallonia. “This would make the King acceptable to only one political party and in only one part of the country.”

The results of the consultation led to social unrest. Violent protests claimed lives and brought the country to the brink of a civil war. Ultimately, Leopold III had no choice but to abdicate in favour of his young son Baudoin. The majority had spoken, but the reality had been louder.

Citizen participation in Belgium: a bright future

With the Royal Question shaking the country to its core, citizen consultation remained a sensitive spot for the Belgians for a long time. The odds of Belgium becoming a democratic wunderkind were, to put it mildly, slim. And even today, the country is still deeply politically and socially divided, with its divisions being eroded by, among other things, a historically sensitive referendum.

So let’s unpack that for a minute. Across the world, democracies are struggling to inspire trust in what is, arguably, the most fundamental crisis of democracy since the end of WWII. Belgium is facing this crisis not only weakened by the resurgence of historical differences, but severely disoriented by the lack of a federal government. No smooth sea has ever made a skillful sailor, but in the storm of this prevailing crisis, Belgium is simply adrift.

If we return to the Democracy Index Report with this context in mind, our status as a flawed democracy suddenly seems to make more sense. But there are also some clear indications that, despite seemingly not scoring much better than three years ago, Belgium has actually received the message. On the ground, change is a-brewin‘. In the last three years, new and innovative cases of citizen participation have brought a breath of fresh air to the country.

In many ways, Belgium has been taking up a pioneering role in experiments of democratic innovation. Belgium’s German-speaking community stunned with the implementation of the Ostbelgien Model, a political system with an impact that left friends and foes with their mouths agape. The city of Kortrijk rebelled against the Royal Question’s legacy and launches the country’s very first digital referendum. The Chamber stimulated citizen initiatives by transforming the Right to Petition. And last but not least, the Flemish government is repainting the democratic landscape by putting participation frameworks in place. Let’s take a closer look at each of these telling examples.

1. The Ostbelgien Model: showing the world how it’s done

This new system takes democracy one step further. Based on selection by lottery—which Aristotle regarded as real democracy, in contrast to election, which he described as “oligarchy”—it (…) won enthusiastic reviews from participants, officials, and locals.”

Belgium’s German-speaking community may be small, but it’s making giant leaps forward when it comes to democratic innovation.

This often-overlooked corner of Belgium is the first place in the world to consolidate permanent citizen participation by lot alongside the traditional powers. The Bürgerrat is a rotating Citizens’ Council that sets the agenda and raises the questions they deem important. They decide on the size and duration of a complementary Citizens’ Assembly that will research, consider and ultimately advise on the matter(s) at hand. This Assembly consists of 50 citizens that were drawn by lot as if, say, they’d be selected for jury duty. The Assembly’s recommendations are finally presented to and debated in the Parliament.

The Ostbelgien Model consolidates citizen participation in the political system.

“People would like to share their ideas, and they also have a lot of experience in their lives which you can import into parliament. It’s a win-win,” cites The Economist. And a win for Belgium, too!

2. The first digital referendum in Kortrijk, Flanders

In October 2019, the Flemish city of Kortrijk proved that the Royal Question is buried once and for all. When deciding on the implementation of a monthly car-free Sunday in the city centre, the city administration decided to ask the city’s inhabitants for their opinions. They did so through a digital referendum, the very first of its kind in Belgium.

The city’s inhabitants, aged 16 or older, had one week to vote via the online platform. For the result to be binding, there had to be a minimum of at least 2,000 participating citizens and a difference of 2,5% between the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ votes. The city of Kortrijk set up an elaborate information campaign to ensure that citizens could weigh the options and make an informed decision.

Ultimately, the city reached an impressive participation rate of 16%. With 10,000 of all 60,000 inhabitants casting their votes, the citizens’ voice was loud and clear: no to car-free Sundays, yes to citizen engagement.

3. Transforming the Right to Petition

In Belgium, the federal Right to Petition already existed, albeit in a limited form. Every citizen had the right to write a letter to the Chamber to formulate a complaint, make a suggestion or comment on a particular public subject. In practice, however, these letters often didn’t lead to tangible change.

With the new system, any citizen collecting 25,000 signatures will be able to put a topic on the agenda in the Chamber. The caveat: these 25,000 signatures have to represent the 3 Belgian regions (14,500 Flemish signatures, 8,000 from Wallonia, 2,500 in Brussels), and have to belong to citizens aged 16 or older.

The intention is to transform the Right to Petition into an accessible vessel for citizen initiatives and to involve citizens in federal decision-making. While this may not be quite as innovative a case as the other two (after all, most of our neighbouring countries already have a similar Right to Petition in place), it is still a big step towards a more citizen-centred and representative democracy.

4. A framework agreement to solidify citizen participation

The Flemish government has decided to put citizen participation high on the priority list. By setting up framework agreements with distributors of citizen participation platforms, it becomes drastically easier for Flemish municipalities to launch a participation project. Local governments will no longer have to go through a long and burdensome approval process to get started with digital participation.

These framework agreements last 4 years, and clearly showcase that the Flemish government is ready to invest in the future of participation. This way, local political structures seem to be filling the void of the federal government.

Belgium is the turtle, not the hare

For our conclusion, let’s return to our initial question. Is Belgium a considerably more democratic and participatory state than 3 years ago? If we look at the numbers, we’d have to say no. But by now, we’ve also learned that Belgium is a unique case. It’s not just about the cards we’ve played, but also about the hand we were dealt, and how we’re improving things under the surface.


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