Freedom in the World
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After the June 2007 parliamentary elections, prime minister designate Yves Leterme was unable to establish a majority coalition amid ethnoregional divisions, and Belgium remained without a proper government at year’s end. The outgoing prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, stayed on in a caretaker capacity, but he was unable to take any major actions. King Albert II asked Verhofstadt to form an interim government in December, and he agreed to stay on until March 2008.
Modern Belgium dates to 1830, when the territory broke away from the Netherlands and formed an independent constitutional monarchy. Today the monarchy is largely ceremonial. Belgium was one of the founding members of the European Union (EU) and still hosts the organization’s central administration in Brussels.
Ethnic and linguistic conflicts broke out between the different communities in the country during the 1960s, prompting 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, Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, and Brussels, the capital, where French and Flemish share the same official status. The small German minority in Wallonia, which consists of around 70,000 people, has also been accorded cultural autonomy. Another 1993 amendment granted the three regional assemblies primary responsibility in a number of important policy areas, including housing, education, and the environment, while keeping foreign policy, defense, justice, and monetary policy in the hands of the central government.
During parliamentary elections in May 2003, the two main blocs in the ruling coalition—the Liberals (the Flemish Liberal Democrats, or VLD, and the Reform Movement, or MR) and the Socialists (the Socialist Party, or PS, and the Socialist Party Alternative, or SPA)—both gained at the expense of the Greens, who were forced out of the coalition.
During local elections in October 2006, the far-right Vlaams Belang Party (the former Vlaams Blok) enjoyed its best showing yet, gaining 20 percent of the vote in Flanders. The party did, however, drop to second place in its stronghold, the city of Antwerp. A bogus report on the country’s public television station, RTBF, at the end of 2006 reported that Flanders had declared independence and that Belgium had ceased to exist. The spoof, which caused panicked calls to the station, was denounced as irresponsible and in poor taste by the prime minister’s office.
In June 2007 parliamentary elections, the centrist Christian Democratic Party, led by Flanders premier Yves Leterme, won the largest number of seats, 30, in the lower house, while the VLD won 18. Leterme was thus invited by King Albert II to form a new government. However, because the Flemish and Walloon parties were unable to agree on coalition terms, the outgoing prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, stayed on as a caretaker, but had no mandate to act. On November 6, Belgium broke its previous record, set in 1988, for the longest period without a government. On December 17, after months of stalemate, the king asked Verhofstadt to form an interim government; the five-party temporary government is expected to address the economic issues neglected during this period and to attempt to form a functioning government based on the June election results. The interim government’s mandate will expire on March 28, 2008.
The cultural and economic differences between the country’s regions helped to fuel the political impasse. The Flemish north has grown wealthy with its emphasis on high-tech industries and international business, and it has sought increased self-rule and reduced taxpayer support for the less prosperous south. Wallonia, once an important steel- and coal-producing region, currently has higher unemployment and welfare rates than Flanders.
In early November, the French-speaking parties walked out of a parliamentary vote on the linguistic division of an electoral district around Brussels, which had been supported by the Flemish parties. This violation of the unspoken rule against voting along language lines shocked many politicians and observers, and only strengthened the rifts among the parties. The king attempted to facilitate negotiations between the prospective coalition members, but his efforts had not produced results by year’s end. A rare moment of unity came later in November, when a majority of parties rejected a bill proposed by the Vlaams Belang Party that would have partitioned Belgium, although intense speculation in the press over the possible dissolution of the country continued for much of the year.
Belgium is an electoral democracy. In February 2004, the parliament granted non-EU immigrants who have been living in the country for at least five years the right to vote in local elections. Voting is compulsory for those eligible.
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. In the Senate, there are 71 seats, 40 of which are filled by direct popular vote and 31 by indirect vote. In both houses, members serve four-year terms. 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 the VLD receiving only a little more than 12 percent of the vote in the 2007 election. In addition, political parties are generally organized along ethnoregional lines, with separate organizations in Flanders and Wallonia, a factor that makes for difficult coalitions.
In November 2004, Belgian courts banned the xenophobic Vlaams Blok Party for violating the country’s antiracism laws. The party changed its name to Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) and removed some of the most overtly racist elements from its platform, such as its call for the mandatory expulsion of all Muslim immigrants. However, the party maintains its anti-immigrant and anticrime policies, as well as its commitment to an independent Flanders. The May 2006 murder of a Malian nanny and the two-year-old girl in her care by a gunman with far-right associations raised concerns across the country about growing intolerance and rising support for Vlaams Belang.
Belgium was ranked 21 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedoms of speech and the press are guaranteed by the constitution and generally respected by the government. The Belgian Chamber of Deputies voted unanimously in March 2005 to approve a law on the protection of journalists’ sources in Belgium. The vote came after police raids on the home and office of a Brussels reporter in 2004, which shocked the community of international journalists. In November 2007, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights had been violated, and Belgium was ordered to pay the journalist damages and court expenses. Newspapers have gone through increased concentration of ownership since the 1960s, as corporations have steadily been buying papers. As a result, a handful of corporations currently run most of the country’s newspapers. The government does not limit access to the internet.
Freedom of religion is protected in Belgium, where the state grants subsidies to Christian, Jewish, and Muslim institutions. About half of the 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 religious groups as “sects.” The government does not restrict academic freedom.
Freedom of association is guaranteed by law, except for membership in groups that practice discrimination “overtly and repeatedly.” Freedom of assembly is also respected. About 63 percent of the Belgian workforce is unionized. Employers found guilty of firing workers because of union activities are required to reinstate the worker or pay an indemnity. According to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, Belgian employers prefer to pay the fines rather than reinstate the dismissed employees.
The judiciary is independent, and the rule of law generally prevails in civil and criminal matters. In July 2004, the UN Human Rights Committee issued a report that expressed concerns about a number of human rights abuses, including acts of brutality and racial discrimination by the police. The report also expressed concerns about the treatment of rejected asylum seekers and illegal immigrants awaiting deportation who were often placed in unsanitary conditions in the transit zone of Brussels national airport, sometimes for several months. A case of two Palestinian asylum seekers alleging abuse at the airport is currently before the European Court of Human Rights.
Specific antiracism laws prohibit and penalize the incitement of discrimination, acts of hatred, or violence based on race, ethnicity, or nationality. Despite these protections, equality of opportunity for foreigners is undermined by a relatively high degree of racial and ethnic intolerance in society. Police are empowered to reprimand or even imprison women found dressed in the burqa (a full-body covering worn by some Muslim women) on the street.
The law provides for the free movement of citizens at home and abroad, and the government does not interfere with these rights. In 2007, the government issued identity cards to all citizens and residents.
The government actively promotes equality for women. In 2003, it created the Institute for the Equality of Men and Women, formerly the Ministry of Labor’s Division of Equal Opportunity, which is empowered to initiate sex-discrimination lawsuits. Women won more than 35 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies during 2007 elections, and 38 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 Trafficking in Persons Report for 2007, the country made considerable efforts to prosecute traffickers, provide protection to victims, and prevent trafficking.