Municipal elections take place every six years in Belgium - an unusually long term by European standards (though NB Irish local councils had seven-year terms in 1960-67 and 1967-74, and an eight-year term from 1934 to 1942). The appointed day is actually tomorrow - very sensibly, Belgians vote on Sundays, between 8am and 3pm; voting is compulsory, unless you have a good excuse. Non-Belgians who have taken the trouble to enrol on the electoral register must also vote. (We have been Belgian since 2008 anyway.)
In our commune, there are 21 local councillors, and five parties are standing full lists of candidates. I don't know what the total number of voters is, but last time we had a turnout of 7,713, more than 1% of the voters are actually on the ballot paper. In 2012 we had a major shift of power, as the outgoing mayor lost his bid for a seventh six-year term (yes, he had had the job since local government was reorganised in 1976) to a coalition of the New Flemish Alliance (NVA), Christian Democrats (CD&V) and the Greens (Groen); with the former mayor's coalition of residents (Fusiebelangen) and Socialists (SP.A) in opposition. The main Liberal party, Open VLD, had never actually stood for elections here, it being understood that the mayor's coalition included a lot of their activists. (It's worth noting that the Belgian liberals are somewhat to the right of liberals in the UK, Canada or the US; and that the Flemish Christian Democrats are to the left of the German CDU/CSU and other European People's Party members.)
This year, Open VLD are standing in their own right for the first time, and the mayor's Fusiebelangen coaltiion has disintegrated. So my choice is between Liberals (Open VLD), New Flemish Alliance (NVA), Christian Democrats (CD&V), Greens (Groen) and Socialists (SP.A). Well, we can rule one of those out immediately. NVA are a hard right party who don't like immigrants and have been responsible for ramping up xenophobic rhetoric. They don't want votes from people like me, and I have barely skimmed their election literature. Their participation in the coalition at local level raises questions for me also about the Christian Democrats and Greens. (Of course, the same can be said of the Liberals at Belgian federal and Flemish regional level, and the Socialists have also been in coalitions with NVA in the past; but my interest here is to hold the local parties accountable.)
I contacted the other four parties to ask two or three questions on the local issues that I particularly care about. First, about public transport provision - I am a regular commuter from here to Brussels, my journey takes a minimum of 80 minutes each way, and I often get fed up with the lack of options to get home quickly and safely later in the evening. Second, our local branch of the library was closed by the current council's ruling coalition, and library facilities centralised at the civic centre 2 km away - I personally regret this, as it was nice to have library facilities nearby on a Saturday, particularly for F when he was younger, but I asked each party if they felt the move had been a success. And third, I asked CD&V and Groen how a foreigner like me can feel comfortable voting for a party that has gone into coalition with the xenophobic NVA. I wrote in English but made it clear that I would be happy with responses in Dutch, and I'm not using linguistic competence as a criterion for my vote. Responses received in Dutch are Google-translated to English below.
In reverse order of my preference, the answers were:CD&V:Public transport:
As a small community influencing the schedule of train or bus is nearly impossible. The city aldermen for CD&V have more than once tried to convince De Lijn to provide such connection from Oud-Heverlee to Haasrode, for now without succes. The answer of De Lijn is that if the community of Oud-Heverlee pays more than 200k€/year they will provide the offer, that is hardly a satisfying offer.Library:
We would like to stay in a future coalition. For us that can change and it doesn't need to be the same coalition. However, we do need a stable majority. Up to the other parties to show their value and if we're lucky will accept their offer to participate in a new coalition. I personnally don't feel the same presence on the xenophobic area in the local party as there is on the national playing field.Comment:
Lack of answer on library disappointing. No real attempt to reassure me on NVA. Only public transport issue mentioned is the east-west bus connection (which is fair enough, it's a big issue for the commune, but I wouldn't use it myself), and basically no action is promised because they've tried it all before and it hasn't worked.Further comment:
One of the CD&V candidates did score brownie points by sending a handwritten note complimenting me on this blog post
in general better coordinate the bus and train connections, as well as coordination with school start and end times;Library:
at de Lijn and at TEC to insist on improving public transport from Blanden and Haasrode to Leuven and vice versa, by making the transport more direct (eg via the Naamse steenweg) and on a better bus offer. Even after 7 pm and at the weekend;
the provision of better bus connections to Vaalbeek (town hall, library) and a bus connection to the De Kouter project;
the conclusion of an agreement with De Lijn around an improved third party payer scheme to offer the residents a cheaper round-trip ticket at events or to give a discount when purchasing a Lijnkaart (municipality card) with which you can enter a certain area. to travel. This municipality pass is for sale at presale points in the municipality concerned;
negotiate with De Lijn to allow the existing student bus pass, with which students can make use of buses all year round in and around Leuven, also for students living in Oud-Heverlee;
to urge the road authorities to improve the traffic flow (flow traffic for the buses so that they arrive on time) and more capacity for bus connections to schools;
at the higher authorities to insist on improving the reception infrastructure of the two train stations (eg secure bicycle parking places, the number of bicycle thefts is still too high).
This reply reached me yesterday, two days before the election. I had emailed the local lead candidate at the same time as the others, on 26 August, over six weeks ago, and joked with him at the Dorpfeest on 2 September that I looked forward to his reply. Eventually I got a handwritten note asking me to send my message again to a different email address - I had used the one on the party website, but clearly it hadn't reached him. The transport policy proposals are all fine, but I'm unimpressed by the mode of engagement. Again, no comment on the library.Groen:Public transport:
Especially in Haasrode and Blanden there is still a lot of growth margin for public transport. We want a faster and more frequent bus connection with Leuven, by driving the bus over the Naamsesteenweg. You can also rely on us to strengthen for the current train offer and bus offer, and to improve the transfer possibilities. Think of better bicycle parking at stations, Park & Ride possibilities, .....Library:
a successful operation. We have looked intensively at how we can use municipal buildings as well as possible. The free space of the former libraries in Oud-Heverlee and Sint-Joris-Weert is now used intensively by the music school. The new library provides more life in the Roosenberg. We want to make this site a real cultural hub in the municipality.Coalition:
At the national level, we indeed have very different points of view, for example about migration. At local level we have been able to cooperate properly with each other, although of course we also encounter different views on mobility and climate, for example. Politics wants to say for us: to enter into dialogue with as many people and opinions as possible. In that sense, we do not veto NVA.Comment:
Interesting defence of the library move. Again, not reassuring on NVA. Generally nice on transport, but not so great on the specifics for us train travellers - the problem with bicycle parking at the two railway stations is not capacity but theft, and it's difficult to see how a park and ride scheme could become relevant given our geography; each of our villages is effectively already a large park and ride zone.Open VLD:Transport:
Public transport in Oud-Heverlee must improve. Here is a selection of the measures that Open-VLD wants to put forward:Library:
- Extend Line 5 from Vaalbeek to Zoet Water so that the inhabitants of Oud-Heverlee and Sint-Joris-Weert can reach the town hall by bus.
- Extension of timetable line 5 so that Haasrode, Blanden and Vaalbeek are also served until 22:00 in the evening.
- More familiarity with the timetables and more and better bicycle parking at all stops.
There are quite a few problems with public transport in Oud-Heverlee. There is a lack of good train and bus connections at weekends, to reach Zoet Water and the villages. The state of facilities at and around the stations can be much better. There are no bus connections from the station in Oud-Heverlee to the residential areas Vaalbeek, Blanden and Haasrode, and Zoet Water. There is no bus transport between the east and west sides of the municipality. There is no bus connection between the Zoet Water and Vaalbeek. This means that the residents of Oud-Heverlee and Sint-Joris-Weert do not have a direct regular bus line available to reach the town hall in Vaalbeek. After 19.00 there are no more buses from Leuven to Haasrode Blanden and Vaalbeek.
Better bus connections in the evening and at weekends are an absolute must. There must be dialogue with De Lijn to improve public transport in Oud-Heverlee, especially at night and during the weekend. It must also be investigated to set up a full bus connection on the East-West axis (line 5 continues from Vaalbeek to Zoet Water).
Combining the different small libraries of Sint-Joris-Weert with that of Oud-Heverlee was not a bad idea. Financial means are limited and their use should be optimised. The issue at stake is, however, that the libraries should be easily accessible also with public transport. Luckily there is the bus 337 that relies Sint-Joris-Weert with Leuven and there is a bus stop at the Zoet Water not far from where the library is located. However, the library can not be reached by public transport from Vaalbeek/Blanden/Haasrode bringing us back to our point of public transport.Coalition:
Interesting defence of the library decision - and this from a party that was not even represented in the council when the decision was taken. Much the same points on public transport but I like the specific mention of trains at the weekends. Replied on 27 August to a message sent on 26 August, which indiciates a welcome enthusiasm. (Groen replied on 29 August, CD&V on 24 September.)
So, in conclusion I think Open VLD have my vote this time around.
We also have provincial elections tomorrow, for those of us outside Brussels. I have searched in vain for an explanation of what the Belgian provinces actually do. (NB this is the Flemish Brabant level - the regions such as Flanders have very real powers.) I am tempted to spoil my ballot (cast a blank vote), as I don't really know what I'm voting for. But I know what I'm voting against, which is NVA and the extremist Vlaams Belang (who have a list of candidates for the province but not for our municipality), so I guess I'll probably vote Open VLD at provincial level as well.
Incidentally, I had not realised that for municipal councils in Belgium, the Imperiali method
rather than the D'Hondt method is used to allocate seats - in other words, parties' votes are divided not 1, 2, 3, 4, 5..., but 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5, 3... - this is very deliberately to discriminate against small parties, and explains why in our last elections
, Groen got only 3 seats out of 21, and NVA got 6 seats, though Groen had more than two-thirds as many votes as NVA (so most systems would have given them 4 and 5 seats respectively). Marquis Pierre Imperiali des Princes de Francavilla, the Belgian senator who gave his name to the Imperiali method, would have been pleased.Edited to add:
I'm grateful to Tim over on Facebook, who explains:
The provinces in Flanders have lost significant parts of their competences earlier this year. Person-related matters (welfare, sport, culture, youth) went to the regional and/or local level. So they are now left with stuff like maintaining provincial roads and provincial parks (e.g. Provinciedomein Kessel-Lo or Bokrijk in Limburg), emergency contingency planning, and tourism. They also play a role when it comes to agriculture and energy policy.
N-VA and Open VLD wanted to abolish the provinces (in Flanders, as provinces fall under the regional government), claiming it is a superfluous subdivision. CD&V blocked the abolition, claiming that there is a real need to have a proper link between the region and the local level, and to assist smaller towns with e.g. waste collection, supporting the local economy, renewable energy etc.). So the compromise was to downsize the province (e.g. number of provincial representatives is being cut by half, the number of executive offices per province goes down from 6 to 4)
I must say that inclines me to feel that they should be abolished (Kessel-Lo and Bokrijk could as easily be run by Flanders or the municipalities), and since there's no way I'm voting NVA, I may as well stick with Open VLD for my provincial vote.