Differences and similiarities between Belgian, Australian and American politics

Leuven Travel Blog

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After some excellent and always informative comments by Cedric on my last post I wanted to write a few thoughts on differences and similarities between Belgian, Australian and American politics. American politics in general tends to get over-simplified, even by Americans (maybe especially by Americans?).

I quite often hear (and have even stated myself) that American politics is far to the right of European politics. This is both true and false. It is true when you consider the Republican and Democratic parties to be monolithic. Obviously the Democratic Party is right of the SP.A and SLP in Belgium, likewise the Republican party is right of CD&V and Open VLD. But there is a lot more diversity within the two American parties than within each of the dozen Belgian political parties. Republicans like Lincoln Chafee, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Colin Powel and Jon Huntsman really could fit into a party such as Open VLD, wanting to move the country to the right on economics and to the left on social issues. The Progressive Caucus of the Democratic Party includes politicians like Bernie Sanders, Barbara Lee, Jerrold Nadler, Donna Christian-Christensen and Carolyn Maloney, who would probably be comfortable in Green or Socialist parties in Belgium. 

In one way, Belgium and America are more politically similar than Australia - both countries seem to be politically more bipolar than Australia. In America the Progressive Caucus accounts for 18% of the House and the Republican Study Committee is about 23% of the House. In Flanders the Greens and Socialists are about 25% of Flemish Parliament and Vlaams Belang is about 24% of the Flemish Parliament. In Australia, by contrast, the Greens and One Nation each hold less only around 1% of seats. To me this indicates that America and Belgium both have large left and far right populations, while Australians tend to be bunched up around the middle. The winner-takes-all system in Australia gives frequent flips in control, but with the centre-left and centre-right moving as close to each other as possible things change little.

Yet the political outcomes in Belgium and America couldn't be more different. The two party system in America means that the fringe Purple suburbs can flip the government to the Blue cities or the Red villages. Government change can have large radical implications to governance - seriously, George Bush and Barack Obama as two consecutive Presidents? In Belgium, by contrast, lots of small parties mean lots of compromises, even large shifts tend to result in similar coalitions, with just a shift in the power balance during the compromise talks.

The single member district system in America means that the Progressive Caucus has never been able to convince the Blue Dogs to risk their own jobs to pass liberal legislation, while the list system in Belgium provides a buffer between politicians and the electorate. The biggest difference of all is how Belgium and America treat the extreme right. By building a "cordon sanitaire" around Vlaams Belang (a lesson perhaps learnt after the Nazi collaborators of WWII?), the centre right has necessarily had to drift left when building coalitions, so by American standards the Belgians governments tend to either be centre or left. In America, by contrast, the moderate Republicans (such as the Main Street Partnership) embraced the extreme right (such as the Republican Study Committee) in a drive for power. This certainly paid off handsomely, letting the right govern as the right, rather than making a coalition with the left like in Belgium. But the moderate Republicans are now paying for their pact with the devil as they have lost control in a coup and the extreme right have taken over the party. Hopefully the right in Belgium sees this threat and keeps up the "cordon sanitaire".
Adrian_Liston says:
Very true about being unable to vote for a specific wing of a political party in the general elections in America - this is why you need preference voting (like Australia) or proportional representation (like Belgium), or even better both. Still, more people vote in the primaries in America than the primaries in most other countries (possibly because the general election system is so screwed up).
Posted on: May 31, 2009
lamadude says:
Luckily the LDD looks like it will take away some of the VB votes this year, I think LDD is a bit of a populist party, but populist sure is a step up from racist, so I hope many people will switch
Posted on: May 31, 2009
lamadude says:
Quickly one other thing: even though I support the cordon sanitaire in principle, I'm not sure if it's the best strategy in countering the far right. By not allowing them to be in power, they have been able to launch all kinds of promises for decades (not just about immigration)without ever needing to worry the slightest about how to implement or fund them, they are in a very easy position where they can just criticise anything they want and anything that is unpopular, knowing that they will never need to defend those things, and that unpopular measures are necessary sometimes. This has allowed them to grow into one of the biggest far right parties in Europe. Other countries (Netherlands, Austria) have had similar parties and have entered into a governement coalition with them, after which it quickly becomes clear that the quality of their politicians is awful and they can't govern, and they usually lose a lot of votes in the next ellection. Also, because the VB is so big, especially when considering the vote for the flemish parliament, it means that cd&v and vld are necessary in pretty much any coalition to reach a majority, almost to the point where you start to wonder what's the point in voting. When your party is absolutely necessary to mathematically reach a majority, it doesn't matter if you win or lose 10%, you will have the same negociation power. This situation is caused by the cordon sanitaire, since now you need not 50% of the votes, but a lot more, something around 70% of the "non-VB" votes

anyway, train :-)
Posted on: May 31, 2009
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