Expats should run for office, says political scientist


In the run-up to the local elections, and the English-language discussion of the results, political scientist Tom Verthé tells us how expats can make an impact on how cities are run

Power to the people

Months of campaigning and weeks of speculation will come to a head this weekend when Belgians take to the polls to vote in the local elections. And not just Belgians: some 160,000 expats are registered to vote across the country.

While non-Belgians cannot vote in provincial, regional or federal elections, EU citizens can vote in municipal – meaning at the city level – elections in the member state in which they live. And in Belgium, non-EU citizens can vote in municipal elections if they have resided in the country for at least five years.

Local elections happen every six years, and in 2012 the Flanders-Europe liaison agency Vleva organised a post-election discussion in English. The same is true for this year: On the evening of 15 October, Local Elections: The Day After takes place at Vleva’s office in the EU quarter. It is part of the Flanders in Dialogue series of events in English.

Speaking at the Local Elections is Ghent University and VUB political scientist Tom Verthé, who says that some expats might underestimate the competencies involved at the local level. In Belgium, city councils have more power than in many other countries.

Building blocks of government

“Municipalities pre-date any other governmental institutions that we have,” he says, “so they have traditionally been the building blocks of the Belgian government system. Because of that, they have actually kept a lot of power at the local level.”

Aside from some basic everyday realities like rubbish collection, street works and public spaces, they  have a “very, very broad” range of authority, says Verthé. “What are we going to do for youth, are we going to have a retirement home in our community, and are we going to manage it ourselves or privatise elderly care. Do we want streets to be car-free at the beginning and end of the school day. Poverty issues, social housing, mobility, urban planning … some municipalities even have their own school systems. So a lot of things that really determine how the place where you live operates.”

But not all local governments are created equal, of course. Some, he notes, do a lot of work together with non-profit organisations and community groups, bringing their voices into the running of the city. “But they can also choose not to, and that’s why it’s important to vote.”

It’s all based on coalition-building, and in a coalition, anything can happen

- Tom Verthé

Aside from the range of competencies making city councils unique in Belgium, the elections themselves are also unique. “We organise local elections the exact same way that we organise elections for other levels of government,” says Verthé.

“Everyone goes to the polls on the same day, it’s based on a system of proportional representation, coalition-building follows – a lot of those things are not prevalent in other countries.”

Flanders and Brussels in particular follow this traditional method, whereas Wallonia does not. There, the party that gets the most votes delivers the mayor. So citizens know who will be leading the city a few hours after they vote.

That’s not the case for the rest of the country. Flanders and Brussels “go to the polls, but that’s not even the most exciting part,” says Verthé. “The big moment is in January, when city councils are installed. That’s when we know who the ruling parties are going to be and who the mayor will be. It’s all based on coalition-building, and in a coalition, anything can happen. You can decide how many city councillors come from which party and who the mayor is – and the mayor could come from the smallest coalition partner. In Flanders and Brussels, all of that is up to the parties and negotiations.”

10% of electorate, potentially

Verthé, whose wife is Italian, says that expats would have the potential to impact local election results – if they voted. If all the foreigners who were eligible to vote actually did, they’d be 10% of the electorate.

The way it stand now, they’re not: Less than 1% of voters in Flanders, for instance, are non-Belgians. If Flanders could get its number up, “they could theoretically have an impact,” says Verthé. “There is potential.”

But he also wants to stress that it doesn’t just stop at voting. EU citizens can actually join political parties and get on the lists for elections.

“Current regulations dictate that you can be a candidate and get elected to the city council, you just can’t be mayor,” he explains. “When you look at Flemish municipalities, 70% have fewer than 20,000 residents, and the parties are constantly looking for people to get involved in local politics. So that’s where you can have an even bigger impact than at the polls.”

Flanders in Dialogue’s Local Elections: The Day After, 15 October 18.00-19.00, followed by reception, Vleva, Kortenberglaan 71, Brussels. The event is free, but registration is required

Photo: Eric Lalmand/BELGA