The Flemish government has agreed a thorough reform of local democracy, with a package of three major changes.
The one that will affect most ordinary people is the removal of the need to turn up to vote, on pain of a fine. Until now, all Belgian citizens who were at one time registered to vote were required to turn up at a polling place to vote at any election. That requirement has now been removed, with effect from the communal and provincial elections in 2024.
The requirement remains, however, for regional and federal elections.
“We have been talking about this since my party was founded,” said Bart Somers (Open VLD), Flemish minister for internal affairs and government business.
Somers, a former minister-president of Flanders who also served for years as mayor of Mechelen, said he was convinced the intervention will lead to “a strengthening of the debate.”
“Each party will have to defend democracy itself and explain why voting is important. The voter will not vote because it is compulsory, but because they want to.”
The second major change is the adoption of direct election of a mayor. At present, the mayor’s sash goes to whoever leads the main party or can pull together the largest coalition. The voter, other than voting for a party list or individual party candidates, has little to no influence over the choice of mayor.
Nonetheless, city mayors still carry a great deal of political power on the national stage. Examples include Bart De Wever (N-VA) in Antwerp, Paul Magnette (Charleroi), Elio Di Rupo (Mons) and Philippe Close (Brussels), all PS.
Instead, the voter will now be given a vote for the mayor from among all candidates on all lists. The highest voting total for a candidate in the winning list will automatically become mayor.
Not quite a direct vote, because only the winning faction can put up a mayor, but a direct vote could have led to anomalous situations where a mayor was elected with no backing in the city council.
The third change is more party-political. Parties compile party lists to be presented at elections, in order of preference. Voters who choose to may vote for an entire list, at which point the preference points are distributed according to the place of the candidate on the list.
On the other hand, voters who choose to can direct their preference to individuals.
In the first case, the decision by the party management of the order of places on the list determines the winner: someone high on the list could receive fewer preference votes than someone lower down, but they will still win.
“Today your place on the list has a big influence. Candidates with few preference votes were sometimes elected because they could benefit from the list vote,” explained Somers.
Under the new change, the winner of the most votes will win, regardless of their place on the list.