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Belgian Electoral Law

A law extending the franchise was one means that the Belgian government used to diffuse public anxiety in a year of extreme industrial and agricultural hardship to increase public confidence in the existing political system. Electoral reform had been discussed since the revolution of 1830. At that time, Louis de Potter, a popular member of the provisional government had urged universal male suffrage in the elections for the national congress. Other voices prevailed, and the new state retained the very restricted suffrage of the former Kingdom of the Netherlands which restricted the electorate to 45,000 out of a population of three million by poll tax and property qualifications. This represented 1.5% of the population. Under the constitution of 1831 the suffrage was only modestly enlarged. By 1840 democratic elements in the country led by Le Patriote Belge again advanced the idea of universal male suffrage as a means to achieve social justice. Such an appeal met with small response from the politically indifferent mass of peasants. In 1844 the call for electoral reform was echoed by the newweekly Débat Social which on November 3, clearly called for universal manhood suffrage. The Patriot Belge and the Débat Social spoke for a small group of extremists, who were politically conscious, thus they drew no popular response. Yet the call did indicate that the idea of electoral reform was current. Organization of the Liberal Party on June 14, 1846 was the first manifestation of the political reform movement. Meeting in the salle gothique of the Hôumflex;tel de Ville in Brussels it adopted an electoral program. One of the major planks in the platform was a call for electoral reforms as a rather modest extension of the franchise to the limit envisioned by the constitution, i.e., the granting of the vote to all who paid twenty florins in direct taxes, doubling the electorate to around 90,000. Leader of the new party was the revolutionary hero, Charles Rogier, who formed a government on August 12, 1847. About the same time, there was founded the "Association D‚mocratique" whose proclaimed objective was the democratization of society through means of electoral reform. The catalyst, however, which gave the impetus for the sweeping electoral reform was the Parisian revolution of February 1848. News the fall of the July Monarchy caused runs on Brussel's banks and government bonds dropped by fifty percent. The Association Démocratique began circulating pamphlets calling for universal manhood suffrage. Rogier refused to undertake any extraordinary measures, but on February 28 he proposed lowering poll tax qualifications to vote for members of parliament to 20 florins. On March 29 a second law extended this same provision to local elections although it retained a provision requiring three years' residency. It is difficult to assess the direct effect of these measures upon the volatile situation in Belgium, particularly in Flanders where suffering and poverty were widespread. Simultaneously, natural causes and the measures voted by the chambers combined to improve the situation. The fact is, however, that the electorate responded positively to the law and in the ensuing election for deputies in June 1848 the Liberal party got eighty-five seats and the Catholic party twenty-three. In the opinion of the Austrian ambassador, the electoral law of 1848 diffused a difficult situation and allowed Belgium to remain at peace with her institution of 1830. The French ambassador echoed the same sentiment, stating that Belgium enjoyed all the benefits of being a republic.
John W. Rooney, Jr.


see Belgium

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