Belgian party system designed to keep newcomers out, Dutch MEP warns

Belgian party system designed to keep newcomers out, Dutch MEP warns |

New parties joining the Belgian political system face an uphill battle to establish themselves alongside well-funded and already-established groups, MEP Sophie in ’t Veld, running with Volt Belgium, told Euractiv in an interview.

A wide variety of “systemic” obstacles – from an “unfair” party financing system which disproportionately enriches established parties to high administrative burdens – prevents new competing parties from entering Belgium’s electoral race, in ‘t Veld said.

The MEP, who defected from the Dutch liberal party D66 to run on the ticket for Volt in the coming EU elections, must gather 5,000 citizen signatures before registering her list. In many other EU countries, the threshold is more feasible, she told Euractiv.

The alternative route is to collect five signatures of current MPs, but Volt Belgium decided to take the “more difficult” route and reach citizens directly as “that’s a very important part of our proposition”, she said.

“I think that’s a very perverted system because, you know, it makes you dependent on the established parties,” she continued. “They can decide whether or not they will allow competition to enter the race.”

“In Europe, elections have to be free and fair. Well, they are free elections. Absolutely. But this is not a fair election,” she said. “The system is designed to keep newcomers out.”

Technical problems

Despite Volt’s efforts to gather the signatures, they have undergone many technical and administrative issues, including with the online signing tool, which has not yet been rectified by the Ministry of Interior which is in charge of electoral matters.

“The ministry doesn’t care, and then you find out that in Belgium, unlike other countries, there is no independent electoral board overseeing the whole process, so you cannot complain,” she said.

In January, in ’t Veld and her party colleagues sent a letter to the Ministry of Interior to complain about many “structural” technical problems and dire “user-friendliness”.

The Christian-Democrat Minister of Interior Annelies Verlinden dismissed Volt’s concerns in a letter on 27 January with a “technocratic” approach, a statement from the party reads. 

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s not just our party program or our manifesto which counts, but also breaking this, this stranglehold of what some call the ‘particracy’,” she said, a reference to a political system in which parties – not citizens or individual politicians – hold disproportionate power.

Public funding policy entrenches the system

Belgian parties received €75 million from public money in 2021, twice as much as in Denmark, Germany, and Sweden, and four times as much as in the Netherlands, while the accumulated net wealth of all parties reached €165 million in 2022, up from €133.5 million in 2020 in The Brussels Times reported. 

“They have endless financial reserves, they have real estate portfolios, investments, they’re financial actors,” in ‘t Veld said, adding that the current system allows established parties to live in a “golden cage”.

“[Volt] is not a new movement of millionaires, this is a new movement with many young people, students, so there’s no money,” she added

“And they are spending so much money on social media, that means that they attract voters not by their results and achievements, but by their presence on social media: we cannot compete with that, not even remotely,” she added. 

On December 2023, four Belgian mini-parties filed a lawsuit against the Belgian government challenging the party financing system, asserting it discriminates against smaller parties as the grant is calculated per cast vote but only for parties with parliamentary representation. 

“Public financing is intended for democracy, not for party-fication and self-enrichment of the parties (…) but in [Belgium’s] particracy the incumbent parties have shielded themselves from competition,” Volt Belgium stressed in a press release in support of the lawsuit. 

“There is a deafening silence about the agreements on reforming the system in the coalition agreement, occasional whispered support for reforms is only make-believe,” they added, as multiple efforts to change the system have failed.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

Read more with Euractiv

Belgian party system designed to keep newcomers out, Dutch MEP warns |

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