Democracy Without Leadership

Imagine a state about the size of Maryland. Give it slightly more people than Michigan. Divide it into three federal regions. Spice it up with three official languages (make sure these don’t coincide with the regions’ borders). Ensure it is run by variable coalitions of 10 political parties operating through 7 parliaments. Chop it into 10 provinces and, for good measure, 589 local councils. Mix well and let stew for a few decades. What do you get? Welcome to Belgium.

It’s so confusing that many Belgians have given up trying to understand how their country is supposed to work. Yet work it does. Its post-Lehman Brothers recession was the mildest in the Eurozone. Unemployment is among the lowest in the EU. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates praised Belgium as one of the only four NATO countries pulling their weight in the Libyan campaign. Innovative legislation gets passed – whether for the good (employment and pension reform) or the bad (racist family reunion laws.)

Not entirely coincidentally, at the time of this article’s writing, Belgium celebrated its first anniversary of being without a national government. As surprising as this sounds, it is also a world record. Discussions about forming one have been going on ever since elections were last held for national leadership, in June 2010. But, apart from the media, no one seems much bothered.

Parliamentary coalitions are like shifting sands, cobbled together or falling apart depending on the legislative agenda. Socialists prevent conservatives from lowering taxes too much, and conservatives return the favour by preventing socialists from boosting welfare spending too much. The Greens prevent the liberals from extending the lifetime of nuclear plants, while the liberals cull the most senseless of the renewable energy subsidies. And so son.

Almost every party in Parliament can, from day to day, be in favour or against something (for example, everyone was in favour of the Libya campaign, but only liberals and Flemish nationalists mooted a restrictive immigration law.) Since there’s no government, there’s no majority whip arm-twisting governing parties into line. Parties are thus free to respond to their electorates’ wishes. That encourages everyone to deal: one can’t piss another party off too much, since it might be needed tomorrow. While pundits bemoan the nation’s inability to govern itself, new legislation is broadly technocratic. No wonder the bond markets are quiet.

Parliaments reflect the whole range of voters’ opinions. In America, Congress, with members ranging from the Michelle Bachmann right to the Pete Stark left, is a far more diverse place than the Obama Administration. But whereas Congress tries to serve 300 million Americans with a mere two parties, Belgium’s 10 parties cater to the needs of 11 million people. Can you think of an example like this, in another country?

Governments are usually winner-takes-all affairs. For one term the majority lords it over the opposition. Since those who voted for the opposition often get screwed in the process, the next time they win, they will try to screw the former majority in their turn. Wild swings of policy may result, often with detrimental effects on anything from the public debt to the educational system.

What Belgium stumbled upon is a radical yet effective form of postmodern governance. Getting rid of the governing majority vs. opposition model lets parties come together and drift apart depending on their innate differences. Policy is more often passed on its merits. All parties have an interest in being constructive at least some of the time. And they are all free to protect the interests of their constituents.

No wonder Belgium is more democratic than most: the Swiss National Science Foundation ranks it as the third-most democratic country on earth. The US? It’s ranked number ten, following Luxembourg. Given how well the place works without proper leadership, there’s probably something to be learned from the alien character of contemporary Belgian politics.

Belgian election leaflets photo courtesy of Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier. Published under a Creative Commons license.


  1. For the Americans, the term “liberal” in the European (or at least the Belgian) political context refers to the center-right of the spectrum — the local equivalent of conservatives (in the old-fashioned meaning, not the born-again one).

  2. The balance of powers indeed fosters democracy. The idea that leader and master plans are over rated device for real world solution finding has been recently developped by Tim Hartford in “Adapt”. But a sentence should be reversed: “‘The Greens prevent the liberals from extending the lifetime of nuclear plants, while the liberals cull the most senseless of the renewable energy subsidies” The current Federal Governement has no Greens but voted the nuclear plant prolongation, while it is the green that have dropped the subsidies on solar panel in Regional Governements 🙂

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