Belgium Moves Away From 19th-Century Style Partisanship

Why you should care

With the breakdown of a long-standing social contract, expect churn in Belgium.  

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Veteran Belgian politician Mieke Vogels of the Groen! party is a child of the rebellious 1960s. But as Flemish minister of health and well-being between 1999 and 2003, her plans for reforms, she argues, were resisted by entrenched social pillars that have for over a century split Belgian life along political affiliations. Now, 15 years later, she spots cracks in that divide.

Starting in the 19th century, the country’s three main political formations — the Socialists, Christian-Democrats and Liberals — each set up a range of civil society organizations that, in the words of University of Ghent political scientist Carl Devos, captured Belgians from “the cradle to the grave.” Trade unions, health insurance, hospitals, newspapers, schools and even sports clubs associated with each party ensured that individuals and families stayed aligned with one of the three pillars of political thought throughout life.

The pillars have been tied to power for too long, and now they are impeding good governance in Belgium.

Mieke Vogels, Groen! party politician

But these pillars are slowly crumbling. Research shows that more and more Belgians are now choosing health insurance based on the quality of services offered rather than political affiliation. The numbers of such Belgians rose by 40 percent between 2012 and 2017, with the country’s younger population leading the move away from rigid pillars. In parallel, parties like the Groen! and Flemish nationalists have started eating into votes of the traditional parties. During the 2014 elections, N-VA, a right-wing Flemish nationalist party, became the biggest party on the Flemish side of Belgium.

At the same time, civil society organizations that helped hold up the pillars have begun loosening ties with specific parties. The Liberal and Christian-Democratic unions have in recent years stepped up active resistance to policies of governments led by their parties. For the country’s 2014 elections, the Socialist trade union called on members to vote for any left-wing party, not just the Socialists, as was the custom. According to Vogels, the pillars stopped being in the interests of Belgians a long time ago.

“The pillars have been tied to power for too long, and now they are impeding good governance in Belgium,” says Vogels.

For many decades, the pillars were critical to the strengthening of Belgium’s democratic processes, say experts. With the expansion of the right to vote in the 19th and early 20th century, the previously elite-based Christian-Democratic and Liberal parties and the new Socialist party mobilized citizens to participate in democracy. “For all the criticism they receive, I also see the emancipatory consequences the pillars had,” says sociologist Jaak Billiet from KU Leuven University. Even Vogels, a trenchant critic of the pillars, concedes they once played an “almost revolutionary role.”

But the social organizations the parties set up also ensured what Devos calls “segmented pluralism.” Members receive social services and security and are mobilized within their pillar, but in turn, they submit to its social control. Both Devos and Billiet are critical of this social control. “They almost locked up people on their own ideological islands,” says Devos.

Each pillar, in turn, receives state support and even takes over functions usually reserved for the state. A 1958 law even guaranteed children access to both a Christian and a state-sponsored school near them.

For sure, citizens have been individually breaking away from the pillars for years now. My grandfather was born into a Socialist family and became a member of the Socialist health insurance. Yet one day in the 1970s, he walked out of his house, angry because his insurance had been holding off on a back payment, found the Christian-Democratic health insurance recruiting next to the church of his village, and signed up with them.

The shift has now grown into a steady pattern that shows no signs of reversing.

Having existed for over a century, the pillars still retain significant influence, say both supporters and critics of the system. While consumers are picking services based on their quality, says Vogels, “back office” networks linked in the pillars remain “very strong.” She argues that these networks are out of touch with young Belgians, including an increasing number with immigrant backgrounds for whom the birth-to-death ideological commitment doesn’t make sense.

That doesn’t take away from the benefits the pillars have also brought to Belgian society, experts like Devos and Billiet caution. The three trade unions pay out a section of the country’s social security benefits (with government money), and Devos points to research that suggests they actually do this quite efficiently. With the disappearance of the pillars, “civil society gets fragmented and handed over to the market,” says Billiet. “It signifies a certain loss of social values.”

But the signs of change are clear. Louis Ide is a member of the European Parliament and general secretary of N-VA. A harsh critic of the division of society along pillars, particularly in health care, he sees the rise of his party as an example of the weakening of the power of the pillars. According to him, the push for change is coming principally from citizens themselves.

“They are not married anymore to one health insurance fund,” he says.

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