Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A tale of two democracies

Last week the United States re-elected Barack Obama for a second term as President. The presidential race, the debates and the election itself were closely followed by the Belgian media and everyone I know here. It's a curiously lopsided relationship; the Flemish know an awful lot about America, including American politics, whereas few Americans could even point to Belgium on a map, much less name any Belgian politicians.

Personally, I try not to think about politics too much. American politics is frustrating and often ludicrous, and Belgian politics is too complicated for me to follow. But during election season (Belgians had their provincial and local elections last month) it's hard to avoid. As an expat, I couldn't help making comparisons between the American political system and Belgium's.
Perhaps the most striking difference, to me, is that while the American government pays lip service to the idea of democracy, Belgians actually practice it. Voting is mandatory in Belgium, which means that voter participation is over 90%. The funny thing is that while there are penalties on the books for not voting (ranging from fines to disenfranchisement), these laws are not enforced. People vote because they're expected to, not because they're forced to.

Elections in Belgium are held on Sundays, which means that the vast majority of voters are able to get to the polls quite easily since very few people work on Sunday. Elections in the United States are held on a Tuesday, for reasons that made sense back in the 1700's when the only people who could vote were white, property-owning men. Nowadays, it means that anyone who works for a living has to go to the polls early in the morning or in the evening, which is even harder to do if you happen to have kids or work two jobs.

So much for election logistics. Another thing I admire about the Belgian political system is the wide range of options that voters have. There's a whole spectrum of political parties ranging from the Flemish far-right, anti-immigration party, Vlaams Belang, to the left-wing Socialists, with the moderate Christian Democrats in the middle. There's also the Liberals (what we Americans would consider fiscal conservatives) and the eco-conscious Green Party.

To make things even more interesting, all the major political parties in Belgium have both a Francophone wing operating in French-speaking Wallonia and a Flemish wing operating in Dutch-speaking Flanders. Only residents of bilingual Brussels can choose from either Francophone or Flemish candidates in their elections.

The advantage to a multi-party system in which no one party ever gets a majority of the votes is that the government is made up of representatives of every political stripe who must work together and form coalitions in order to govern. The disadvantage is that these coalitions can be shaky at best, or even impossible to maintain, leading to the recent situation in which Belgium went almost two years without a federal government in place.

The problem with the winner-take-all, two-party system in America is that a large number of the 300 million citizens feel that neither of the main political parties accurately represents their interests or speaks for them. One of the reasons voter turnout in the United States is so low is that some people look at the two main candidates and can't bring themselves to choose either one.

Belgians are very surprised when I tell them that Obama and Romney weren't the only two presidential candidates. Don't worry, I tell them: Most Americans have no idea that there were other candidates either. It shouldn't be surprising that a country as large and complex as the United States would produce other political parties and other candidates. But since the winning candidate must have a majority of the votes—let's just forget about the Electoral College for now—no candidate can hope to win without the money and influence of either the Democratic or Republican Party behind him (or her).

All of my Belgians friends are pro-Obama, which is not surprising when you realize how unpopular his predecessor was amongst Europeans. Also, when you consider how far right American politicians skew compared to Western Europe. The Democrats are viewed here as centrists, similar to the Christian Democrats in Belgium, while Republicans are seen as right-wing extremists. Although the Democratic Party is seen as “liberal” (meaning progressive) in the U.S., there is no viable progressive political force there.

And that's one of the things I love about living in Belgium. My crackpot, left-wing, “elitist” ideals are just... normal. Here in Belgium, “socialist” isn't a dirty word, it's a valid political philosophy. Single-payer healthcare? Got it. A lot of my friends in the U.S. are thrilled that voters in two states have just legalized same-sex marriage... but Belgium was one of the first countries in the world to make same-sex unions legal, back in 2003. And the Belgian Prime Minister is openly gay.

Don't get me wrong—racism, sexism and homophobia do exist in Belgium. But they belong to a minority and are properly relegated to the fringes of political debate. I think the majority of Belgians, like the majority of Americans, are pretty tolerant, moderate in their politics, maybe even slightly traditional in their views. What's interesting is how very different the political systems are in these two “democratic” countries.

Oh, and I purposely left out the bit about Belgium being a constitutional monarchy. See, they also have a king, like any good European state. Now that's something no American would tolerate!

(A version of this post also appears on the website for Fans of Flanders, the new television program aimed at English-speaking expats in Belgium. I'm very honored to be one of the regular guest bloggers!)

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