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Poll position: What you need to know about the Belgian local elections in October

10:47 05/07/2018
With voters heading to the ballot boxes in October, don’t miss your chance to have a say in how your local commune is run. As a first-time voter, here’s what you need to know

This autumn, voters across the country will decide how they want their local communities to be run for the next six years. In communal elections, “what voters do is literally elect the municipal council,” says Pascal Delwit, a professor in political science at Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB). The seats in the municipal councils – which function like local parliaments – are divvied up among the parties after the elections, based on a proportional representation system. “After the election, a council made up of the mayor and councillors is formed, so the mayor is the equivalent of the prime minister and the councillors are the equivalent of the ministers,” says Delwit, comparing the local and the federal level.

By casting a vote for a political party, you’ll be able to decide on many of the things affecting the day-to-day goings-on in your neighbourhood. Compared to countries like the UK and France, municipalities have much more power in Belgium, says Delwit, as they are able to decide on matters from land planning, public roads, cleanliness and economic development to social aid and the municipal schools in their territories.

Like in any other EU member country, EU nationals have the right to vote in local elections in Belgium, though they must register to do so. Where Belgium differs is that non-EU citizens who have lived in Belgium for five years also have the right to vote in local elections, as the result of a still-controversial decision made in 2004 by the then Belgian government.

Belgium is by no means alone in offering these extended voting rights – approximately half of the EU member countries allow nonEU citizens to vote in local elections under certain conditions, explains Thomas Huddleston, research director at the Migration Policy Group.

Karin Impens, deputy to the Brussels commissioner for Europe, points out that expats account for almost 52% of the population in some communes. “The realisation is growing that when there are that many of you, you can and have to weigh in on policymaking,” she says.

“We are 310,000 people in Brussels and a couple of hundred votes can change the outcome of an election in some communes,” adds Huddleston, who is from the US and moved to Belgium in 2006. “I think a lot of non-Belgians have woken up to the fact that they feel more at home in Belgium than they do in their country of origin, and that instead of complaining they can actually get involved,” he says, adding that developments like the 2016 terrorist attacks, the UK’s decision to leave the EU and the presidency of Donald Trump have pushed people to become more politically engaged.

It’s hard to say whether we would see a complete reshuffling of the political power if all non-Belgians suddenly decided to head to the ballots, as Huddleston is hoping. “Non-Belgians tend to care about the same thing as Belgians,” he says, particularly those who have lived in Belgium for some time, with political preferences that cover the left-right spectrum.

But, he adds, newcomers to Belgium are often frustrated with the limited offer of government services in English and the cleanliness of their neighbourhoods. If a political party decided to run on making more government services available in English, they would have a good chance of getting the expat vote, Huddleston says.

Election checklist

Three months before the election
Register to vote through your commune before 31 July – a straightforward and simple process, says Huddleston. “It’s super easy to send in your one-page form by post, to vote by proxy on the day of the election if you’re sick or abroad and to deregister afterwards if you no longer want to vote in Belgium,” he says, adding that it’s important to bust the myths among some expats that paint the voting procedure as complex or cumbersome. The form is available from your local commune or you can download it from commissioner.brussels. You may already have been sent it in the post. Sometime after, you’ll normally get a letter inviting you to vote, telling you which polling station you should head to on 14 October. “This is often a public place, a venue owned by the commune, where they’ll put up the voting booths,” explains Impens.

One month before the election
The campaigning process will be at full speed now, and all parties should have announced who will head their political lists in the various communes. It might be hard to find a one-stop-shop overview of all the parties running in your commune and their campaign programmes, but local news outlets can help, says Huddleston. In the run-up to the elections, most news outlets tend to compile comprehensive breakdowns of local parties’ manifestoes.

In the voting booth
Hunker down with your ballot or place your chip card into the computer, select whether you want to vote on the French- or Dutch-language lists and choose the party you want to see in power. You can cast a party list vote or a preferential vote. If you want to support a political party and are satisfied with how the candidates are ranked on their list, simply check the box at the top of the list. If you want to support particular political candidates ranked in, say, position 5, 8 or 12 on the party list, check the boxes next to their names. Popular candidates with many of these preferential votes can be voted into power this way even if they are ranked on a low place in their party list. You can cast a blank vote, but you’re not allowed to vote on candidates on different lists.

Meet the parties

Parti Socialiste (PS)
Largest political group, positioned left of centre, defending social protection

Mouvement Réformateur (MR)
Adopting conservativeliberal views and defending individual freedom, the rights of the self-employed and businesses, as well as national unity

Centre démocrate Humaniste (cdH)
Centrist party with Christian values, promoting social protection, business interests and national unity

Ecolo
Promoting sustainable values and a greener way of life

Démocrate fédéraliste indépendant (DéFi)
The former Front Démocratique des Francophones (FDF), fights for the linguistic rights of French-speakers in the Brussels region and periphery

Parti populaire
Far-right party seeking stricter controls on immigration and promoting liberal economic policies

Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA)
Centre-right nationalist, conservative and separatist party defending traditional values and the free market

Christen-Democratisch en Vlaams (CD&V)
Centrist party defending Flemish cultural identity, Christian values and free market economies

Open Vlaamse Liberalen en Democraten (Open VLD)
Right-of-centre party supporting liberal, conservative-liberal, and social-liberal policies

Socialistische Partij Anders (SPA)
Social democratic party with socialist values, frequently working with the Frenchspeaking PS

Groen
Flemish equivalent to Ecolo, it promotes environmental issues, solidarity and social justice

Vlaams Belang
Right-wing nationalist party fighting for Flanders’ independence and stronger immigration law

This article first appeared in The Bulletin Summer 2018. Pick up your copy from newsagents today, or subscribe here.

Written by Linda A Thompson