Learn more about the government in Belgium and its political and judicial system including the main political parties and how to vote.
Over the last decade, Belgium has had many challenges forming a government after elections because of its complex federal structure. The linguistic differences between the Belgian regions underlie nearly all discussions relating to the Belgian government and law. Moreover, regional or community authorities manage several public services in Belgium.
If you are living in Belgium or have recently moved there, you will soon encounter these regional political differences. So to get you up to speed, this article provides an overview of the government and political system in Belgium, including the following:
- The government and political system in Belgium
- The prime minister and current government in Belgium
- The main political parties in Belgium
- Belgium’s electoral system
- Voting in Belgium
- Political representation in Belgium
- The political history of Belgium
- Recent political reforms in Belgium
- Political tensions in Belgium
- Belgium’s judiciary system
- Belgium and the European Union
- The state of the economy in Belgium
- Grassroots politics and political activism in Belgium
- Useful resources
The government and political system in Belgium
Like the United Kingdom, Belgium is a constitutional monarchy where the reigning monarch acts as head of state. King Philippe is the current monarch of Belgium. He was sworn in on 21 July 2013, following the abdication of his father, King Albert.
The king’s role is primarily ceremonial as the Belgian federal government and the two chambers of parliament make the executive and legislative decisions. The government is formed following democratic elections within a multi-party system. Alexander de Croo took the oath as Prime Minister in 2020 and currently leads the federal government.
Belgium has a reputation for complex coalition negotiations following elections. This is largely due to the linguistic and political differences between the Dutch- and French-speaking regions which play a significant role. Naturally, these differences have also led to increased transfer of power from the federal level to the regional and municipal governments.
Belgium ranks 36th in the 2020 Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Index, which is lower than neighboring countries the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, and France. This is partially due to fact that Belgium has low political participation, despite it having free and fair elections and a government that upholds fundamental civil liberties.
The prime minister and current government in Belgium
Alexander de Croo was sworn in as Prime Minister of the current seven-party coalition government in Belgium on 1 October 2020. The De Croo government is aptly called the Vivaldi coalition after the composer’s work, The Four Seasons. The name is inspired by the four differing political perspectives in the coalition: the Christian Democrats, the Greens, the Liberals, and the Socialists.
The last Belgian election was held in May 2019 and signaled a deep regional divide. The previous coalition between the Flemish parties (CD&V, N-VA, and Open Vld) and the French Reformist Movement (MR) lost a quarter of their seats. In their place, the Flemish separatist and nationalist parties (VB and N-VA) won with 28% of the vote. In contrast, the Green Party (Ecolo) and Workers’ Party (DA-PTB) won 15% of the vote in Wallonia.
The negotiation talks that followed lasted more than a year. Even King Albert, Belgium’s former head of state, had to meet with each party leader to move the negotiations along. Eventually, in October 2020, the De Croo government was sworn in to lead the country until the next election in 2024.
The seven political parties forming the coalition government include:
- Christen Democratisch en Vlaams (CD&V)
- Open Vlaamse Liberalen en Democraten (Open VLD)
- Écologistes Confédérés (Ecolo)
- Mouvement Réformateur (MR)
- Parti Socialiste (PS)
The main political parties in Belgium
Belgium has many political parties, each with language and regional differences. Naturally, this makes government formation challenging. The prominent Dutch, French, and German political parties in Belgium are as follows:
The main Dutch-speaking political parties
Christen-Democratisch en Vlaams (CD&V)
The Christian Democratic and Flemish Party (CD&V) was founded in 1968 as the Flemish People’s Party. Led by Joachim Coens, CD&V wants to preserve the Flemish cultural identity. The party has lost ground to some of the newer Flemish parties, such as Vlaams Belang (VB). It currently holds 12 seats in the Belgian Chamber of Representatives, having lost six seats in the 2019 election.
Led by Meyrem Almaci, the Flemish Green Party (Groen) was founded as Agalev in 1982, an acronym for Anders Gaan Leven (to live differently). The party has seen an increase in popularity and currently holds eight seats in the Chamber of Representatives.
Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA)
The New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) was founded in 2001 and has become one of the most popular parties in Flanders with its separatist agenda. Bart de Wever, who is also mayor of Antwerp and a member of the Chamber of Representatives in the federal parliament, is the party leader. N-VA currently holds the highest number of seats (25) in the Chamber of Representatives. However, the 2019 election showed a decline in the party’s overall popularity in favor of Vlaams Belang (VB).
Open Vlaamse Liberalen en Democraten (Open Vld)
The Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats (Open VLD) were founded as VLD in 1992 and led by the current Belgian Prime Minister, Alexander de Croo. Initially striving for economic liberalism, the party has adopted a social-liberal stance in recent years. Egbert Lachaert is the current party president. The party still holds 12 seats in the Chamber of Representatives, despite losing two seats in the 2019 election.
Vlaams Belang (VB)
Founded in 2004, the Flemish Interest Party (VB) strongly advocates a separate Flemish state. Under Tom van Grieken, the party won a groundbreaking number of seats (18) in the 2019 election. However, it was unable to secure a place in the coalition. This was due to a cordon sanitaire imposed by other parties. This strategy isolates and excludes a political party that is considered to be extreme and dangerous in its policies.
The Flemish Socialist Party (Vooruit) was founded after the linguistic split from the Belgian Socialist Party in 1978. It adopted the name Vooruit in 2021. The party has been declining in popularity in recent years and holds nine seats in the current Chamber of Representatives. Conner Rousseau is the party leader.
The main French-speaking political parties
The French-speaking Center Démocrate Humaniste (CDH) was founded in 1968 and originally called the Christian Social Party (Parti social-chrétien, PS). The party appeared to lose popularity in the 2019 election, winning only five seats in the Chamber of Representatives. In March 2022, it transformed itself into a political movement and changed its name to Les Engagés (The Engaged). As a movement, the party strives for more political engagement and citizen-led initiatives. Maxim Prévot is the party president.
Démocrate Fédéraliste Indépendant (DéFI)
The Democratic Federalist Independent (DéFI) is a social-liberal political party created in 1964. It advocates for the rights of French speakers and François De Smet is the party president. DéFI won two seats in the current Chamber of Representatives in the 2019 election.
Écologistes Confédérés (Ecolo)
Led by Jean-Marc Nollet and Rajae Maouane, the French-speaking green party Ecolo (Confederate Environmentalists) is active in Wallonia, Brussels, and the German-speaking region of Belgium. Ecolo has seen a rise in popularity even greater than its Dutch counterpart party, Groen. In the 2019 election, the party won 13 seats in the Chamber of Representatives, gaining seven additional seats compared to the previous election.
Mouvement Réformateur (MR)
The liberal French-speaking political party, the Reformist Movement (MR), is led by Georges-Louis Bouchez. MR considers itself a pro-European, liberal party. It is part of the current Belgian coalition and holds 14 seats in the Chamber of Representatives. However, the party’s popularity has declined since it participated in the previous government.
Parti Socialiste (PS)
Founded in 1978, the Socialist Party (PS) is the largest Francophone social-democratic party. It is currently one of the most popular Belgian political parties, with 20 seats in the Chamber of Representatives. PS is led by Paul Magnette.
Partij van de Arbeid van Belgie/Parti du Travail de Belgique (PVDA-PTB)
The Worker’s Party of Belgium (PDVA-PTB) subscribes to a Marxist and socialist ideology. Founded in 1979 and led by Peter Mertens, it is one of the few fully national political parties in Belgium, representing Flanders and Wallonia. Following Vlaams Belang (VB), PVDA-PTB has shown the most significant rise in popularity. The party won 10 additional seats in the 2019 election, bringing its total to 12 seats in the current Chamber of Representatives.
The main German-speaking political parties
The German-speaking region of Belgium also has several political parties. However, these do not play a significant role at the federal level, given their limited size and following. The main German-speaking political parties of Belgium include:
Christlich-Soziale Partei (CSP)
The Christian Social Party (CSP) was founded in 1971 and is currently led by Luc Frank. CSP supports a Christian-democratic ideology.
Partei für Freiheit und Fortschritt (PFF)
The Party for Freedom and Progress (PFF) is the liberal political party representing the German-speaking community in Belgium. The party was founded in 1961 and Kattrin Jadin is the party president.
Sozialistische Partei (SP)
The Socialist Party (SP) is the German branch of the Belgian Socialist Party and is led by Matthias Zimmermann.
Pro Deutschsprachige Gemeinschaft (ProDG)
The Pro German-speaking Community (ProDG) was formed in 2008 and is a Christian-democratic regional party. Clemens Scholzen is the current party leader.
Belgium’s electoral system
The Belgian electoral system changed significantly after the sixth state reform in December 2011, giving regions more autonomy. As a result, federal government elections occur every five years, coinciding with the European and regional elections. However, the king can call an earlier election if the government falls; for example, in the 2010 Belgian federal election.
During the election, the electorate goes to the polls to elect members to the Chamber of Representatives (Kamer van Volksvertegenwoordigers/Chambre des Représentants/Abgeordnetenkammer). The Chamber of Representatives has 150 seats divided across 11 electoral constituencies.
Each political party can produce a candidate list with as many candidates as the number of seats available. Constituents can vote for a party or individual candidates. They also have the option to leave a blank or invalid vote.
Given Belgium’s fragmented political landscape, elections usually result in multiple parties winning seats with no clear majority. This leads to lengthy negotiations between party leaders to form a coalition.
As the head of state, the king of Belgium leads the talks. First, he appoints an informateur (informant) to gather the demands of the different political parties. Subsequently, he chooses a formateur, which is typically the prime minister, who finally forms and leads the coalition government.
In addition to the Chamber of Representatives, the Belgian Federal Parliament comprises the Senate (Senaat/Sénat/Senat). Out of the 60 senate members, the regional and community parliaments appoint 50 members. The senate members, in turn, co-opt the remaining 10 members.
Voting in Belgium
Belgium is one of the few countries with a compulsory voting system, and voting has been mandatory for men since 1893. Conversely, in 1948, it was one of the last countries in Europe to give women the right to vote.
Elections in Belgium usually take place on a Sunday. Belgians over 18 must cast their vote at a designated polling station, showing an identification document (ID) and an official invitation letter. Those living abroad can send in their ballot by mail or vote by proxy. Belgians who fail to vote may face penalties or have difficulties applying for jobs or securing promotions in the public sector. If they don’t vote in more than four elections, they can lose their right to vote for 10 years.
Belgian citizens don’t need to register to vote unless they live abroad or have recently changed their home address. Therefore, residents must contact their local municipality to ensure that they are on the electoral roll when relocating.
Can I vote in government elections in Belgium?
Only Belgium citizens can vote in the federal, regional, or provincial elections. However, Belgian residents can vote in their local municipal elections every six years, regardless of their nationality. Furthermore, EU citizens can vote in the European elections every five years.
Notably, international residents need to register with their local Belgian municipality and be listed in the electoral register to vote in the municipal elections.
Political representation in Belgium
To be eligible for election, political candidates must be Belgian citizens who are registered with their local municipality and listed on the electoral register. They must also be at least 21 to stand for parliamentary elections.
EU citizens residing in Belgium can run for office in the European and municipal elections, but non-EU citizens cannot.
The political history of Belgium
Belgium’s linguistic diversity has always played a significant role in its political landscape. The regional divisions between Dutch, French, and German speakers are a constant source of discord. Over the last half-century, the country has undergone several state reforms driven, in part, by regional and linguistic differences. What’s more, national political parties have also fractured into smaller factions representing different linguistic regions.
Recent political reforms in Belgium
State reforms in Belgium are an ongoing process. They aim to resolve political differences between the Dutch-speaking Flemish region and French-speaking Wallonia. The state reforms implement constitutional and legal amendments that support Belgium’s federal structure. To date, Belgium has executed six state reforms, with the public debate on the next reform already underway.
First state reform: 1970
The first state reform resulted from the growing tensions between the Dutch- and French-speaking communities in Brussels. It laid the foundation for Belgium’s political transition from a unitary state to a federal one. The reform led to the Belgian government establishing three distinct cultural communities (Dutch, French, and German). The communities gained the responsibility for maintaining the use of their language in the community.
Second state reform: 1980
In the second state reform, the three cultural communities gained formal status and increased responsibility for health and youth policies. The Flemish and Walloon regions were also established. The communities and regions had the power to form their local parliament and government.
Third state reform: 1988 to 1989
A third region, the bilingual Brussels Capital district, was established following the third state reform. As a result, responsibility for education, transport, and public works shifted to the regional communities.
Fourth state reform: 1993
The fourth state reform marked a full-fledged transition of Belgium to a federal state with autonomous regions and communities. As a result, the first article of the Belgian Constitution had to be amended.
The state entrusted communities and regions with more fiscal responsibilities and resources as part of the reform. They also had the first regional elections for their local councils. At the same time, the linguistic divide between the regions continued, with the province of Brabant dividing into Flemish-Brabant and Walloon-Brabant.
Fifth state reform: 2001
Two agreements came into effect with the fifth state reform. The Lambermont Agreement transferred areas such as agriculture, fisheries, and foreign trade to the regions and local municipalities. The territories also became responsible for local and provincial governments and collecting twelve regional taxes. Furthermore, the Lambermont Agreement ensured the representation of the Flemish community in the Brussels parliament.
Sixth state reform: 2011
The sixth and most recent state reform came after another political crisis in Belgium, where a regionally divided electoral vote created challenges for government formation. Among the changes ushered in by the reform was the separation of the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde constituency. The regions and communities also gained greater financial autonomy and increased political responsibility.
The sixth reform led to several further changes in the Belgian Senate. For instance, the Senate’s size shrunk to 60 members. Additionally, regional and community parliaments appointed senate members instead of being voted in. Interestingly, the king’s children no longer had a seat in the Senate.
Political tensions in Belgium
The need for ongoing state reforms is a clear indication of the political discord across the regions of Belgium. Language has been at the heart of political tensions since the country’s foundation in 1830 when French was the official language. Soon after, the Flemish-speaking population mobilized against the French-speaking elite, creating a language-driven rift in Belgian politics.
The state has been increasingly devolving policies and powers from the federal to the regional level. In fact, there is a continual discussion about a hypothetical future partition of Belgium. Of course, this has strengthened support for the Flemish nationalist and separatist parties’ (VB and N-VA) agenda for an independent Flemish state.
Belgium’s judiciary system
Next to legislative and executive powers, the Belgian federal state also has judiciary authority. As a result, judges and magistrates exercise judiciary duties independent of the government. The king appoints court judges for life under the conditions specified in the Belgian Constitution.
Belgium’s civil code and judiciary system are based on the French civil code but also derive laws from other sources. These include the Belgian Constitution and EU directives and regulations. They also include laws passed by the federal parliament, as well as regional and communal decrees.
The Court of Cassation (Hof van Cassatie/Cour de Cassation/Kassationshof) is the supreme court of Belgium. It rules on the legality of the judgments presented by lower courts. However, it does not rule on the constitutionality of laws or hears appeals against government administrative decisions. Constitutional matters fall within the jurisdiction of the Constitutional Court of Belgium. In contrast, government administrative decisions are presented before the Belgian Council of State.
Belgium and the European Union
As well as being one of the founders of European integration, Belgium is also home to many European Union (EU) institutions. Brussels, the Belgian capital, is an official seat of the EU and is often referred to as its de facto capital. Furthermore, Belgian politicians have always played an important role in EU politics.
According to the 2018 Eurobarometer Survey 90 of the European Parliament, most Belgian citizens believe that EU membership is beneficial to their country. Around 79% of Belgians consider themselves EU citizens, and 84% prefer the euro as a currency. Both these figures are above the EU average.
Belgians also support a greater role for the EU Parliament and have supported more European integration. That said, Euroscepticism has filtrated into government discussions with the rise of Flemish nationalist parties such as the Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA) and Vlaams Belang (VB).
The state of the economy in Belgium
Belgium is a high-income country, ranking 23rd globally in overall prosperity. The Belgian economy is also the 37th largest in the world in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) and the 20th concerning GDP per capita. Globally, Belgium is also among the top 10 countries with the lowest levels of income inequality.
The majority of Belgium’s GDP comes from the industrial and service sectors. As a country with several big ports, it has always relied on international trade. It has built its wealth by importing raw materials and exporting finished products. The country’s diamond trade is a prime example of this. Historically, Belgium was also a major steel producer in the 19th century. With its coal mines, Wallonia was the hub of this industrial activity.
However, by the 20th century, both the steel industry and economic prosperity in Wallonia took a downturn as coal reserves dwindled. In contrast, the Flemish region saw growth in the manufacturing and service industries and has attracted greater investments. Of course, this economic disparity between the Flemish and Wallonian areas is just one source of political conflict between the Belgian regions.
Grassroots politics and political activism in Belgium
Low levels of political participation have resulted in Belgium’s lower ranking in the EIU Democracy Index compared to other Western European countries. This is despite high levels of turnout in the constituencies due to its compulsory voting system.
The ideological divide between the Flemish and Wallonian regions has eroded citizens’ trust in political parties resulting in limited public interest in politics. Therefore, only a small number of residents sign up for party memberships or associate with civil society organizations.
That said, several recent grassroots initiatives show that change is possible. For example, the German-speaking Belgian community recently voted for the Ostbelgien Model. As such, the community set up a rotating council of 50 citizens. Candidates are drawn by lot. They are responsible for researching, deliberating, and consulting on local parliamentary matters. Another example is the 2019 digital referendum of the Flemish city, Kortrijk, about introducing car-free Sundays in the city center.
Naturally, you can get involved in local politics by joining a party or participating in referendums or citizens’ councils. For instance, you can join residents’ groups that engage with specific issues at local or international levels, such as:
- Citizen Action Brussels – Citizens’ movement to make Brussels a sustainable and socially inclusive city
- Brussels Together – Citizens’ collective contributing to building a more transparent, inclusive city
- Rise for Climate – Citizens’ collective that lobbies the Belgian government and EU institutions to take increased action against climate change
- European Citizen Action Service (ECAS) – Brussels-based international non-profit organization that engages European citizens to create a stronger, inclusive EU
- Directorate of Elections – website of the Home Office providing information on elections and candidates
- Belgian Federal Government – official website of the Belgian federal government
- Premier.be – official website of Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo
- Chamber of Representatives – official website of the Belgian federal parliament’s Chamber of Representatives
- Belgian Senate – official website of the Belgian Senate
- Belgium.be – informational portal explaining the Belgian federal and regional government structure