Elections in Belgium can seem pretty complicated, especially for expats who might struggle with the language barrier. In this post, we’ll give you a taste of how the Belgian political system works, and show you how/if you can vote.
Every 6 years there are municipal and provincial (i.e. East Flanders) elections held in Belgium. The next such elections will take place on the second Sunday of October in 2024.
Every 5 years there are regional (Flemish), national and European elections – the next set of these take place on 26th May 2019 (and the one after in May 2024).
The good news is that non-Belgians can only vote at the maximum of 2 of these elections, so your choices are limited.
You can see more general information about elections in Belgium in English here. The government also prepared a website about voting in the European Parliament elections in all EU languages.
Who is allowed to vote?
The first thing you should know is that Belgians are obliged to vote as soon as they turn 18. Non-voters risk getting a fine. For any foreigner who has registered to vote, the same rules apply.
As a non-Belgian you don’t have the right to participate in all elections; only in the municipal one and in the European Parliament ones, if you are from another EU country.
You have the right to vote as a non-Belgian when you have fulfilled the following requirements:
- You are an EU citizen, or you have to have legally lived in Belgium for 5 consecutive years if you are not an EU citizen.
- You are registered to vote in your municipality’s (i.e. Ghent’s) official register.
- You are at least 18 years old before the day of the elections.
To vote in this year’s election it’s important to know that you, as a non-Belgian, had to have registered to vote by the end of February 2019. Note that the registration period is always several months before the elections, so don’t wait until the last moment to register.
What happens on election day?
Once you have registered you will have received a letter from your municipality confirming that you are entitled to vote. You should have also received another document (an oproepingsbrief) about a month before the elections, describing where you have to vote (address, section etc.). If you didn’t receive it by about 2 weeks before the election date you can still get your local municipality to issue a copy until 12:00 on election day.
- On election day itself, you need to remember to take your ID and the oproepingsbrief with you to the polling station mentioned on the brief. Without these documents, you cannot vote. The polls are open only between 8:00 and 13:00. In some municipalities other than Gent it is possible to vote electronically (see below).
- Hand your ID and document for them to check at the counter.
- It might happen that you will receive a different colour of the ballot paper (or less papers) as the Belgians voting next to you. Do not worry, this has to do with the fact that you are only entitled to vote in a limited number of elections.
- You bring the paper to the voting booth.
- With the red pen provided, you can select the whole list if you agree with the order of the candidates or it entails only one candidate. If you want to vote for one or more specific candidates you fill in the circle next to the name(s). You can only do this on the one list. If you fill out names on various lists your vote is void. If you make a mistake you can ask for a new paper at the counter.
- You can abstain – then you don’t fill in anything.
- Afterwards, you fold the paper. Put it in the ballot box by the counter. Your vote will be registered and you get a stamp on your oproepingsbrief and your ID card back.
- Here is a video which illustrates the process in Dutch.
On the day of the elections, you can check this website, click on your municipality and see the candidates of each party. They will also display the final results after voting. For the European Parliament elections, the candidates and the results are published at the national level.
Belgium is slowly introducing electronic voting. This is currently not yet possible in Ghent, however, several neighbouring municipalities have already introduced this method (e.g. Deinze, Evergem, Sint-Niklaas …). The full list can be found on the official government election website. There are two different types of electronic voting (new vs. old voting computers), the East Flemish communities are still using the old system. A short video explains the procedure for voting on the old computers.
What if I am not in the country on the voting day?
If you are ill, working, temporarily abroad or can’t get to the voting station for some reason, you can vote with a power of attorney, meaning you ask someone else to vote on your behalf. You will need to have legitimate proof of your absence to avoid getting a fine.
You can find the authorisation form and the explanation of the procedure (in Dutch) on the website of the municipality. Note that the person you are authorising has to be a Belgian citizen, however, they don’t necessarily have to be from the same municipality.
Why is it important to vote?
Municipal elections: The city council sets the general policy for Ghent and governs everything of municipal importance within the Ghent area. The council meets monthly to discuss and decide on these matters. For example, this involves setting priorities for the distribution of available funds, a debate on personnel policy, whether to build a new sports hall or library or the realization of a new business park…
European Parliament elections: The European Parliament adopts all European legislation – which is then transformed into national policies and rules. For example, the European Parliament voted on banning the exorbitant mobile phone roaming charges, giving us the right to use our Belgian-operator calling minutes even when we are abroad. In the European Parliament, the parties must collaborate at the supranational level to ensure that they are working for the benefit of the citizens. So even though you will elect Belgian candidates, they will need to take into account the considerations of all European citizens if elected.
Who will I be able to vote for?
Just like in all democratic states, every candidate represents a different political party. Currently, the Belgian political landscape is dominated by several largest political players such as
- CD&V – The Christian-democratic party
- N-VA – Flemish nationalist party
- SP.a – the socialist party
- Groen – the Flemish Greens
- Open Vlaanderen – Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats
- PVDA – Workers’ Party of Belgium
- Vlaams Belang– Right wing independentist party
Additionally, you might also find the smaller parties on the ballots (e.g. PISS-OFF, BE.ONE partij, DUW.GENT …). You can find the full candidates list for each election on the website of the government electoral office.
If you want to know more about the political parties in Flanders and what they stand for, click on the links connected to each party (information in Dutch).
There are 7,398 seats in the local governments in Flanders, and the voters can choose between 36,741 candidates.
Belgium as a whole has 21 seats in the European Parliament. Voters in Flanders can vote for the Dutch-speaking party list.
How can I become a candidate?
If you want to participate in Belgian elections as a candidate, you have to be a citizen of an EU country. You can only stand for the municipality and provincial elections, not the national ones. Internationals from non-EU countries cannot stand as a political candidate in Belgium.
To be eligible, you must either have the backing of two existing municipal councillors or have gathered enough signatures among the wider community. This varies from five to 100 signatures depending on the size of the municipality. Residency checks are carried out on each candidate to make sure they actually live in the commune they are representing.
The information on this page is based on the information found on official government and local websites, and on the experience of the authors. While we have done our best to make sure it is accurate, rules and regulations change and each individual situation might be different, so it is always a good idea to check with appropriate authorities for the latest information. Consequently, the authors do not assume any responsibility or liability for any issues or damages stemming from the use of the information on this website.
About the author(s)
This article was written in collaboration between the editors of TheSquare.Gent (Heather, Nina & Jenny) and Guest Author Dobrinka Barzachka.
Dobrinka, 41, lives in Belgium since 2013. Having previous experience in performing projects worldwide involving contacts with governments, she follows the political life in Flanders as well. Dobrinka is volunteering as a Team Manager for Expats at Community Gent – a co-operation platform that aims to be a city challenger while being active as a knowledge and information centre. She coordinates a working group, focusing on the well-being of the expats living in Gent.
Dobrinka also is a business development executive at ATAI Design providing strategic advice to private companies and public organisations. She designs and facilitates strategic workshops for private and public sector using the LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® method.