Belgium | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2009

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Flemish leader Yves Leterme became prime minister in March 2008, nine months after his centrist Christian Democratic and Flemish party placed first in parliamentary elections. Contentious coalition talks had caused the delay, and the viability of the new government remained in doubt for much of the year. Leterme ultimately resigned in December, after the government was accused of attempting to interfere with a court ruling on the breakup of Fortis, a bank that was crippled by a global financial crisis in the fall. King Albert II swore in Herman Van Rompuy, also a Flemish Christian Democrat, as the new prime minister on December 30.

Modern Belgium dates to 1830, when the territory broke away from the Netherlands and formed an independent constitutional monarchy. In the 20th century, Belgium became 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. The 1993 amendments 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 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.

The far-right Vlaams Belang Party (the former Vlaams Blok) enjoyed its best showing yet in the 2006 local elections, gaining 20 percent of the vote in Flanders. The party did, however, drop to second place in its stronghold, the city of Antwerp. Vlaams Belang was extreme in its advocacy of Flemish independence, but cultural and economic differences between the country’s regions had 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.

Flanders premier Yves Leterme’s centrist Christian Democratic and Flemish (CDV) party—in an electoral bloc with the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA)—led the June 2007 parliamentary elections with 30 of 150 seats in the lower house. The remaining seats were divided among 10 other factions. Leterme was invited by King Albert II to form a new government, but because the Flemish and Walloon parties were unable to agree on coalition terms, outgoing prime minister Guy Verhofstadt stayed on as a caretaker. After months of deadlock, the king in December 2007 asked 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. However, he was unable to consolidate support after taking office. The king rejected his offer to resign in July, after he failed to win approval for a regional autonomy plan, and lawmakers began to leave the ruling coalition during the fall. Leterme’s government was ultimately brought down by a scandal linked to the financial crisis that swept the world in September. The state bought a large percentage of shares in Fortis, a crippled bank, but shareholders sued, alleging they had not been informed of the sale. Leterme’s office was accused of attempting to influence the judge presiding over the case. The prime minister offered his resignation again in December, this time refusing to return to his post. On December 30, the king swore in Herman Van Rompuy, also of the CDV, to replace him.

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. In the Senate, there are 71 seats, with 40 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 each standard ideological niche occupied by separate Flemish and Walloon parties.

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 positions, 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. The party was the third-largest vote-earner in the 2007 Chamber of Deputies elections, taking 12 percent of the vote and 17 seats. In February 2004, Parliament granted non-EU immigrants who have been living in the country for at least five years the right to vote in local elections.

Belgium has minimal issues regarding corruption and was ranked 18 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedoms of speech and the press are guaranteed by the constitution and generally respected by the government. A law on the protection of journalists’ sources was enacted in 2005, in the wake of a 2004 incident in which police raided the home and office of a Brussels reporter. In 2008, Brussels courts ruled against two magazines in separate defamation cases; MO Magazine and Humo had published allegedly damaging images of a wealthy industrialist and the federal police chief, respectively. MO Magazine was required to pay a symbolic 1 Euro fee to industrialist Georges Forrest after depicting him in a 2006 issue dressed as late Zairean dictator Mobuto Sese-Seko, but the court rejected Forrest’s lawsuit. Humo was ordered to remove all copies of the issue showing the doctored image of the police chief and a secretary in a compromising pose. Concentration of newspaper ownership has progressed since the 1960s, leaving most of the country’s papers in the hands of a few corporations. The public broadcasters of the two linguistic communities are operated separately, and Belgians have access to numerous private outlets. The government does not limit access to the internet.

Freedom of religion is protected, and 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 groups as “sects.” 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 63 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. 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, a UN Human Rights Committee report expressed concerns about a number of human rights abuses, including acts of brutality and racial discrimination by the police. The report also cited the treatment of rejected asylum seekers and illegal immigrants awaiting deportation, who were often held in unsanitary conditions in 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 Euros each (roughly $22,000) in damages after they were detained in the airport in 2002.

Specific antiracism laws prohibit and penalize the incitement of discrimination, acts of hatred, and 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, and 38 percent of the seats in the Senate, during the 2007 elections.

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.