Freedom in the World
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Flemish nationalism was resurgent in 2012 as the separatist New Flemish Alliance, led by Bart de Wever, made strong gains in October local elections across Flanders, emboldening the party in its demands for greater autonomy from Brussels. Belgium’s 2011 ban on face coverings continued to cause controversy, as a riot broke out in Brussels when a women was arrested after refusing to take off her veil, and the far-right Vlaams Belang offered bounties to anyone who reported violators of the ban to police.
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; with the exception of the bilingual district encompassing Brussels, parties are only permitted to run in their respective linguistic regions.
Parliamentary elections held in June 2007 ended with Flemish and Walloon parties unable to agree on terms to form a coalition; after 196 days of negotiations, the king finally 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 Flanders premier Yves Leterme of the centrist Christian Democratic and Flemish (CD&V) party to become prime minister the following month. Leterme’s government was 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 CD&V, to replace him.
In November 2009, Van Rompuy was appointed as the first permanent president of the European Council, the EU’s intergovernmental decision-making body, and Leterme again became prime minister. However, his government fell in April 2010 when its coalition partner, the Flemish Liberals and Democrats (VLD), withdrew over disagreements over proposed changes to voting rules in the district encompassing Brussels.
The separatist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) led June 2010 national elections with 27 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, while the Francophone Socialist Party (PS) placed second with 26 seats. Coalition negotiations again stalled over a series of issues linked to the balance of power between Flanders and Wallonia. The Leterme government remained in place for most of 2011 in a caretaker capacity. In September, the Dutch and Francophone parties reached a compromise on the separation of the contentious Brussels-area electoral district, and a final agreement was reached at the end of November. The new government, which notably did not include the N-VA, was led by Elio Di Rupo of the PS, the first French-speaking prime minister in more than 30 years; it took over from the caretaker government in December 2011.
N-VA leader Bart de Wever was victorious in Antwerp’s October 2012 mayoral election, becoming the city’s first non-socialist mayor since World War II. The N-VA was successful in local elections across Flanders, winning about 30 percent of the total vote and taking 38 percent in Antwerp, compared to 28 percent for the Socialists. De Wever said the results signaled that Flanders wanted more independence, and he demanded that Di Rupo agree to further concessions. The victories were expected to provide the N-VA with momentum ahead of the 2014 parliamentary elections. In December, King Albert II in his annual Christmas speech warned Belgians to beware of populism, invoking the rise of fascism in the 1930s; de Wever alleged that the king had violated the impartiality of his role as head of state.
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.
Corruption is relatively rare in Belgium, which was ranked 16 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 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. Internet access is unrestricted.
Freedom of religion is protected. About half of the country’s population identifies itself as Roman Catholic. However, 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.” 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. The ban took effect in July 2011. Offenders face a fine of up to €137.50 ($183) or a week in jail. Two women who were fined €50 ($66) in July for wearing full veils challenged the law in court, but the Constitutional Court in October 2011 refused to suspend the ban, ruling that the two women had not proved that they had been discriminated against. Protesters rioted outside a Brussels police station in May 2012 after a woman was arrested for refusing to remove her veil. In response to the incident, Filip Dewinter, a leader of the Vlaams Belang, in June offered a bounty of €250 ($310) to anyone who reported a woman wearing a headscarf to police. The government does not restrict academic freedom.
Freedom of assembly is respected. Freedom of association is guaranteed by law, except for groups that practice discrimination “overtly and repeatedly.” 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. An imam was killed in an arson attack on a Shiite Muslim mosque in a Brussels suburb in March 2012; police arrested a Sunni Muslim man who Mosque officials said was motivated by sectarian hatred. While a 2009 government decision regularized 25,000 illegal immigrants, there have been complaints about the treatment of rejected asylum seekers and illegal immigrants awaiting deportation who can sometimes be held in unsanitary conditions in the Brussels airport for several months.
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.
The government actively promotes equality for women. The state Institute for the Equality of Men and Women 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 37 percent of the seats in the Senate. Belgium legalized same-sex marriage in 2003, and in 2006 it gave gay and lesbian couples the right to adopt children. In 2011, Di Rupo became the country’s first openly gay prime minister. Belgium is a source, destination, and transit point for trafficked persons. However, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report, the country complies fully with the minimum standards for eliminating trafficking.