Your primer on Belgium’s elections

The European Parliament elections aren’t the only elections taking place this June that can change the landscape of governance in Brussels. On June 9, Belgians will go to the polls for their regional and national elections on the same day as they vote for the new European Parliament.

Ahead of the election, the Europe Center is answering the big questions about the vote, leading parties, and top issues on the ballot.

Why does this election matter?

The most eye-catching—and perhaps slightly hyperbolic—reason these elections matter is that the future of the Belgian state may hang in the balance. Pro-separatist parties in Belgium’s northern, Dutch-speaking Flanders region are poised to take the largest share of votes. These parties have advocated for the independence of Belgium’s northern province, ending an unhappy marriage with French-speaking Wallonia to the south. But don’t rush to throw away your maps just yet: Belgium is likely not splitting up anytime soon. The country is notoriously difficult to govern, and divvying up the country has been a much-discussed idea for decades. It’ll come down to what the new government in Belgium looks like—and whether it has any separatist involvement.

The election holds implications beyond the future of the Belgian state. The majority of the frozen Russian assets in Europe sit in Belgium’s jurisdiction, and Belgium is working out how to best manage and implement the various ideas being mooted regarding what to do with the funds. Belgium, with a new government—if it can form one in any timely fashion, never a given—plays an outsized role in the use of the funds and will continue to face pressure from Washington and others inside Europe. These elections will also be part of any success or failure of a rightward shift across the continent. Far-right parties are on the rise, and Belgium is no outlier as its mainstream parties have been losing their vote share to more fringe elements in recent years. How these parties do in Belgium will matter in determining whether or not there is a pattern of any significant shift to the right for Europe.

How does Belgium’s regional division play into the government’s formation?

Regional divides play an overwhelming role in the country. Almost all the country’s actual governance sits with devolved regional parliaments and authorities. In the north, the Dutch-speaking Flemish are represented. To the south, it’s the French-speaking Walloons. (A small German-language community to the east of the country also has its own parliament, and the Brussels-Capital Region has its own regional representation too.) For the federal elections, parties are also split by region. Walloons will get a choice from French-speaking parties, and Flanders will choose their own Dutch-speaking parties—with only few exceptions. All parties will meet in Brussels to hash out some sort of coalition agreement. This means the federal parliament has an immense number of parties represented and further complicates the government formation at the federal level. There are, for instance, twelve parties represented in the current federal parliament (seven of which are in the current governing coalition). Negotiations over the formation of the government in the country are notoriously tedious—and infamously long. Belgium went 652 days before inagurating the current government, and it took 541 for a government to form following Belgium’s 2010 elections.

What are voters’ top priorities in the election?

It varies by region, but the federal election maps trends seen across Europe. Flanders has a strong tinge of separatism. Voters there also have a focus on migration, where the far right is expected to make gains. The far-right Vlaams Belang party is leading the polls in Flanders, followed by the right-wing and separatist New Flemish Alliance party. Voters in Wallonia to the south are traditionally more left leaning than their northern counterparts. The Socialist Party leads polls in the region, but the centrist Reformist Movement is making up ground. This contradictory trend adds an extra layor of complication in coalition negotiations.

Can the far right win? How would that impact the independence discussion?

It’s difficult to tell whether the far right can enter government. Belgium fits within the larger European trend in which the right and far right are making gains. But in Belgium, a party winning in elections does not necessarily mean that party will win in negotiations. Success at the ballot box and ending up in power are two very separate discussions. After the elections, the various parties will have to come up with some sort of governing pact. The matter of who takes the prime minister post is uncertain and subject to negotiations. The party of current Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo came nowhere near the top of the polls in the last election, but De Croo found himself at the helm. Moreover, it will be difficult for the far right to find its way into power. Belgium has kept the far right out of any governing coalition in the past with its cordon sanitaire. The future of keeping the far right out of power is another key detail to watch both in Belgium and at the European Union-level, as European parties grapple with exactly how to govern (or how to avoid governing) with rising far-right parties across the bloc.

James Batchik is an associate director at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center.

Further reading

Image: A cyclist rides on a footpath in front of the Belgian Parliament in central Brussels, Belgium June 26, 2023. REUTERS/Yves Herman