Freedom in the World
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Freedom in the World Scores
Belgium is an electoral democracy with a long record of peaceful transfers of power. Political rights and civil liberties are legally guaranteed and largely respected in practice. Major concerns in recent years have included the threat of terrorism and corruption scandals that have unsettled the country’s complex governing coalitions.
Key Developments in 2017:
- After the media revealed improper payments to politicians by a public utility company in late 2016, multiple executives and elected officials in Wallonia were forced to resign in January, and a commission of inquiry was established the following month.
- The mayor of Brussels resigned in June amid a scandal over similar payments he received as a board member at a publicly funded nonprofit organization that provides aid to the homeless.
- Later that month, to protest the involvement of the Francophone Socialist Party (PS) in the recent scandals, the Humanist Democratic Centre (CDH) party withdrew from the governing coalitions in Wallonia, Brussels, and the French Community of Belgium, resulting in a new government for Wallonia that left the PS in opposition.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 39 / 40 (−1)
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 12 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
The Belgian monarchy is largely ceremonial, although the king retains constitutional authority to mediate during the process of government formation. The prime minister, who is the leader of the majority party or coalition, is appointed by the monarch and approved by the legislature. After the 2014 parliamentary elections, Charles Michel of the Movement for Reform (MR), a center-right Francophone party, became prime minister in a government that also included the separatist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), the Christian Democratic and Flemish (CD&V) party, and the Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats (VLD).
Belgium’s multilayered subnational administrative units have their own governments with varying degrees of autonomy. In addition to the three main geographic divisions of French-speaking Wallonia in the south, Flemish-speaking Flanders in the north, and the biligual Brussels capital region, there are overlapping governments for the French Community, the Flemish Community, and the German-speaking community. Beneath these are provincial and various local governments.
In June 2017, following corruption scandals that implicated the PS, the CDH withdrew from governing coalitions that included the PS in Wallonia, Brussels, and the French Community. In July, the CDH and MR formed a new government in Wallonia, forcing the PS into opposition.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
Belgium’s Federal Parliament consists of two houses: the Chamber of Representatives and the Senate. The 150 members of the lower house are elected directly by proportional representation. The Senate is composed of 50 members selected by community and regional parliaments, and an additional 10 members chosen by the first 50 based on the results of the Chamber of Representatives elections. Members serve five-year terms in both houses.
In the 2014 elections, the N-VA took 33 seats in the Chamber of Representatives, while outgoing prime minister Elio Di Rupo’s PS won 23 seats. The MR captured 20 seats, the CD&V took 18, the VLD won 14, and the Flemish Socialist Party secured 13. Several smaller parties, including the CDH with 9, accounted for the remainder.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 4 / 4
Despite the complexity of the political system, the electoral laws and framework are generally fair and impartially implemented.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 16 / 16
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 4 / 4
The party system is robust but highly fragmented, with separate Flemish and Walloon political parties representing various positions on the left-right spectrum.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4
Belgium’s coalition-based politics allow individual parties to move easily in and out of government, and there is a long record of peaceful transfers of power between rival parties at the federal level. The most recent such transfer occurred after the 2014 elections, when the center-right MR captured the premiership from the left-leaning PS.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 4 / 4
The political choices of voters and candidates are generally free from undue interference.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 4 / 4
Members of minority groups are free to participate in national and subnational politics, and women also enjoy full political rights. In the 2014 elections, women won approximately 39 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Representatives and 50 percent of the seats in the Senate, which must have a minimum of 20 women senators.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 11 / 12 (−1)
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4 / 4
Elected officials generally adopt and implement laws and policies without improper interference from unelected entities, though the difficulty of forming majority coalitions has sometimes disrupted governance over the past decade. The country went roughly 19 months without a government in 2010–11 due to protracted coalition talks.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 3 / 4 (−1)
Public officials can face heavy fines and up to 10 years’ imprisonment for corruption-related offenses, and enforcement of anticorruption legislation is generally adequate. However, recent scandals have drawn attention to abuses involving politicians who hold multiple positions on the boards of public and private entities, with some officials holding more than a dozen paid positions. At the end of 2016, a news outlet revealed that local officials in Wallonia had received remuneration for sitting on advisory boards at the public utility company Publifin without in fact attending the supposed board meetings. Several politicians and Publifin executives were forced to resign, and Wallonia’s legislature established a commission of inquiry in February 2017 to investigate the scandal. In May, similar revelations implicated the mayor of Brussels and Samusocial, a publicly funded nonprofit that assists the homeless. The mayor, Yvan Mayeur, resigned in June, and another official investigation was launched.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to a number of corruption scandals at the subnational level that illuminated weaknesses in safeguards meant to prevent abuse of office.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 4 / 4
The law provides mechanisms for the public to access government information, and these procedures generally function in practice. Legislators and other high-ranking elected officials are required by law to regularly disclose their assets as well as paid or unpaid mandates, executive functions, and occupations to the Court of Audit. Information about asset declarations is not publicly accessible, but declarations of interests are published in the official government gazette.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 56 / 60 (+1)
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 15 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 4 / 4
Freedom of the press is guaranteed by the constitution and generally respected by the government, though there have been some concerns in recent years about protection of journalists’ sources. Belgians have access to numerous public and private media outlets that present a range of views. Internet access is unrestricted.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 3 / 4
More than half of the country’s population identifies as Roman Catholic. Freedom of religion is protected, but members of minority religious groups have complained of discrimination by the government as well as in housing and employment. A ban on the partial or total covering of the face in public locations, which is understood to target ultraconservative Muslims, has been in effect since 2011. Offenders can face a fine or up to a week in jail.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4
The government does not restrict academic freedom. Schools are free from political indoctrination, and there are no significant impediments to scholarly research or discussion.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4
Private discussion is open and vibrant, and freedom of expression is guaranteed by the constitution, though there are laws banning incitement to hatred and other such offenses.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 12 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4
Freedom of assembly is protected by law and generally respected in practice.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4 / 4
Freedom of association is guaranteed by the constitution, and nongovernmental organizations operate without undue restrictions.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 4 / 4
Workers at companies that employ more than 50 people have the right to organize and join unions and to bargain collectively. Employers found guilty of firing workers because of union activities are required to reinstate the workers or pay an indemnity. During 2017, labor organizations mounted several strikes and mass demonstrations against the economic policies of the Michel government.
F. RULE OF LAW: 14 / 16 (+1)
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 4 / 4
The judiciary is independent by law and in practice, and court rulings are duly enforced by other state entities.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 4 / 4 (+1)
The judicial process generally guarantees a fair trial, and the authorities typically observe safeguards against arbitrary arrest and detention. In the period surrounding November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris and a March 2016 attack in Brussels, the authorities took a number of extraordinary security measures, including a rapid series of police raids, a lockdown that restricted movement across the capital for several days, an increase in searches and short-term detentions amid heavy deployments of police and soldiers, and a large number of trials in absentia against militants who had allegedly gone to fight in Syria. These measures had eased significantly by 2017, though legislative reforms continued. In October, lawmakers increased the maximum length of detention in police custody without a judicial order from 24 to 48 hours.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 due to a reduction in the extraordinary security measures and deployments that had followed terrorist attacks in France and Belgium in 2015 and 2016.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 3 / 4
Although conditions in prisons and detention centers meet most international standards, many facilities continue to suffer from overcrowding. Torture is illegal, though human rights organizations have criticized Belgian authorities for holding prisoners in terrorism cases in prolonged solitary confinement.
There were no major terrorist attacks in Belgium during 2017, but the threat persisted. Police carried out a number of arrests targeting individuals who were suspected of plotting attacks or colluding with perpetrators of the 2016 bombings.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3 / 4
Antidiscrimination legislation prohibits bias and acts of hatred and incitement based on categories including gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, and sexual orientation. Nevertheless, some groups, including immigrants and Romany residents, continue to face a degree of discrimination in practice.
In November 2017, the parliament adopted legislation that tightened asylum policies, in part by reducing the time and scope for appeals of negative asylum decisions and expanding the grounds for detention of asylum seekers. Advocacy organizations said that the changes often reduced Belgium’s standards to the minimum allowed by the European Union.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 15 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4 / 4
The law provides for freedom of domestic movement and foreign travel, and the government upholds these rights in practice. There are no restrictions on the right to change one’s place of residence, employment, or education.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 4 / 4
The legal framework supports property rights, and commercial activity is regulated without arbitrary interference.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 4 / 4
There are few significant restrictions on personal social freedoms. Belgium legalized same-sex marriage in 2003, and in 2006 same-sex couples gained the right to adopt children.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3 / 4
Immigration has increased in recent years, but labor-market integration of non-EU immigrants and their native-born children is comparatively low. Despite government efforts to combat the problem, Belgium remains a destination country for human trafficking, particularly for sexual exploitation and domestic labor; victims generally originate in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa.