Political participation of Belgium’s Muslim populations

Pierre-Yves Lambert, september 1997 (contribution for 'Muslim Voices')

1968 marked the creation of ‘Immigrants Local Advisory Boards’ (CCCI in French) by various municipalities (communes). While some of these boards were elected, others consisted only of members chosen from local associations by the town authorities.

The CCCIs’ representativeness was often challenged in view of the lack of interest shown by the immigrant communities themselves, notably during the elections. Moreover, according to former advisory board members and other social figures of the time, these boards had almost no influence on the local authorities’ decisions concerning matters of interest to immigrants. A striking example concerns the issue of the municipal cemetery plots reserved for Muslim burials, which was brought up by the CCCIs in the early seventies but completely ignored by the local authorities. Not until the highly publicised burials of two children assassinated in the Brussels area, a Turk (1996) and a Moroccan (1997), whose families expressed regret at having to bury their children in their countries of origin for lack of Muslim plots in Brussels’ cemeteries, did this issue become the subject of intense media coverage and finally attract the political authorities’ attention.

Here it bears repeating that these advisory boards were considered at the time a transitional step towards extending the right to vote and eligibility to stand in local elections to non-Belgians. This movement was supported by several of the traditional parties represented in Parliament until 1979 ; then it was ‘put on the back burner’ in the ‘80s. Not until March 1997 did the political rights of resident aliens return to the political and media limelight in the wake of the emotion triggered by the farewell ceremony for Loubna Ben Aissa, a young Moroccan girl who had been raped and murdered by a deranged man in 1993 but whose body was discovered only four years later.

Under the provisions of the Maastricht Treaty, in the year 2000 EU nationals will probably be the only non-Belgians eligible to participate in local elections. Belgium’s Muslim resident aliens, who make up the country’s main ‘non-European’ population, will thus be excluded from local elections. The French-speaking and Flemish Green parties have been the only parties to defend the local political rights of all resident aliens, whether European or not, since their founding in the early ‘80s. They were joined on this by the French-speaking Socialist Party (PS) in mid-97, followed by the French-speaking Christian Social Party (= Catholic people’s party), the PSC. The Flemish Socialists (SP) defended this position until the late ‘80s, but seem to have rallied to it again, albeit cautiously, over the last few months. In contrast, the Flemish nationalists (Volksunie) and the two ‘liberal’ (i.e., right-of-centre) parties on either side of the language divide (VLD and PRL-FDF) clearly wish to restrict the extension of voting rights in the 2000 elections to EU nationals only.

A certain number of Moroccan activists and social workers, especially people who had come to study in Belgium and often married non-Moroccans, asked for and obtained Belgian nationality in the ‘80s, despite the hostile attitude toward this ‘switching of allegiance’ that was expressed by the King of Morocco, Hassan II, and immigrant organizations with close ties to the Moroccan regime. In contrast, the Turkish government has always encouraged the acquisition of ‘dual nationality’ by its emigrants. However, applying for nationality of the host country has been a recent development among the Turks settled in Belgium and elsewhere in Europe. The latter seem to have changed their position in the interim, banking on the creation of a sort of ‘Moroccan lobby’ in Europe to influence the European States’ policies with regard to Morocco. The spate of legislative measures taken since 1987 and especially since 1992 to facilitate the acquisition of Belgian nationality for second- and third-generation immigrants has increased the Belgian population of foreign descent considerably. The process has also affected first-generation immigrants from outside Europe, despite sometimes humiliating deterrent administrative and police measures such as investigations to check the applicant’s ‘desire to integrate’ Belgian society.

The proportion and absolute numbers of EU nationals applying for Belgian nationality are declining steadily. A major reason it Belgium’s 1991 ratification of the 1963 Strasbourg Convention, which led to the automatic loss of their original nationality for Italians, Frenchmen, and Spaniards who voluntarily acquired Belgian nationality. Being outside the scope of this agreement, non-Europeans - the Turks and Moroccans among them - keep their original nationality in any event. The proportion of non-Europeans in the total number of naturalisations has thus been rising steadily.

Unlike other European States, Belgium does not require that one give up one’s prior nationality to acquire Belgian nationality. Dual nationality is even provided for in the population registry, as are how and when Belgian nationality was acquired. Belgian nationality may be revoked in specific cases, but this clause has not yet been enforced.

Reference to this possibility in the early ‘90s with regard to a North African connected to the trial of the presumed members of a network supporting the Algerian Armed Islamic Groups (AIG) nevertheless raised concern among some political activists of North African origin because of the precedent that such a measure would create.

Trade union activists of North African origin joined the Socialist Party and, to a lesser extent, Christian Social Parties (PSC/CVP), depending on their trade union affiliation, very early in the history of Muslim immigration in Belgium. Others, notably the Turks and Kurds, set up left-wing groups of various persuasions and rallied to the Belgian Communist Party. Even today there are very few Turks, whether naturalised or not, in Belgian political parties. In Saint-Josse, a borough of the Brussels-Capital Region where Turks make up 20% of the population, there are fewer than five Turks in the 300 members of the PS’s local chapter and none in the other parties. In contrast, North Africans have flocked to the PS since 1994, for various reasons : political ambition, economic interests (getting a job), social interests (getting council housing), and political convictions. Except for the PRL and far right, most parties do not restrict their membership to Belgian nationals. Yet to date not a single political party has manifested publicly its openness to ‘foreigners’ and racist incidents have occasionally flared up in local chapters in this connection.

Aside from a few token ethnic candidates standing for council seats in the 1988 local elections, the significantly, widely publicised arrival of candidates with Muslim backgrounds on the Belgian political stage (especially in Brussels) took place in the 1991 parliamentary elections, when the PSC fielded a candidate of Moroccan descent for the Chamber of Representatives, the PS fielded a candidate of Tunisian descent for the Senate, and Ecolo (the French-speaking ‘Greens’) fielded two candidates of Moroccan descent for the Chamber and one for the Brabant Provincial Council. Then there was the Moroccan wife of Jean-Pierre Van Rossem, an eccentric financial ‘guru’ threatened with a prison sentence for swindling, on the ‘Rossem’ list submitted by her husband. In Flanders, on the other hand AGALEV (the Flemish ‘Greens’) and the Belgian Workers’ Party (PTB-PVDA - Stalinists) were the only parties to include candidates of North African or Turkish descent on their provincial or national lists. The PTB-PVDA did the same in Wallonia, albeit to a lesser extent. Ecolo fielded only one candidate of North African descent in Wallonia, namely, in Liege. The only Muslim immigrant to be elected in 1991 was an Ecolo Brussels provincial councilman who had come to Belgium to complete his university studies. He thus was neither a first-generation immigrant worker nor a ‘youth’ of the second generation. These elections nevertheless contributed to the political parties’ developing a new approach to North Africans, especially in the Brussels area. Henceforward, North African immigrants were seen as potential players on the political playing field and, most important, an electorate whose votes could be garnered by ethnic candidates.

The consequences of the changes in nationality on the electorate’s ethnic make-up were already perceptible - especially in the boroughs of Brussels - in the 1994 local and provincial elections and the 1995 parliamentary and regional elections. This process is continuing and gathering steam. As a result, Muslim voters will have to be reckoned with in the regional elections of 1999 and municipal elections of 2000, for they are likely to cause a few seats at least to change hands and thus to weigh on the local and regional political balances. In Saint-Josse, for example, which is a small centrally-located Brussels commune, the population breakdown on 1.1.1995 was 42% Belgian, 20% Turkish, and 19% North African. In April 1995 16% of the registered voters were of non-EU descent. If local voting rights were founded on residence rather than nationality, the potential electorate for the 1994 local elections would have totalled 15,696 people, 46% of them ‘Belgian’ and 54% ‘non-Belgian’. Eight Belgians of Moroccan descent (but not a single Turkish immigrant) stood for election and two of them were elected to the 27-member town council. One of these ‘ethnic’ candidates came in third in terms of votes of preference for all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, although this was the first time he stood for election since being naturalised.

The 1994 municipal elections thus marked the first time that the Belgian political parties were forced to allow for this potential constituency, which was likely to straddle the traditional party cleavages, at least in some Brussels boroughs, and take on an identity of its own. Almost all of them, with the notable exception of the neoliberal parties and the far right, thus fielded candidates of North African - primarily Moroccan - descent in 1994 and/or 1995. The number of Turkish candidates remained infinitesimal, except on the PTB-PVDA’s lists.

The question of the development of political autonomy of Brussels’ North African population was thus raised in terms of the possibility of ‘ethnic lists’ and the issue of candidates of foreign descent on ‘Belgian’ party lists who, although participating in debates and granting numerous interviews on Brussels’ Arabic-language radio stations, publicly rejected the label of ‘ethnic candidates’ targeting an ‘ethnic constituency’. This state of affairs persists, moreover, and very few of today’s elected officials of North African descent admit their ‘specificity’ and that of their constituency when talking to ‘native’ Belgians.

A single ‘ethnic’ or rather ‘multiethnic’ (for it also included some native Belgians and at least one Algerian) movement, MERCI,[ Mouvement Europeen pour la Reconnaissance des Citoyens, en ce compris ceux issus de l'Immigration or European Movement for Recognition of Citizens, including recognition of citizens of immigrant background] presented lists in the 1994 local elections and this was in four Brussels boroughs only. The movement’s creation had been announced by one of its promoters, a member of the PRL, in April 1993. This movement was created formally in the summer of 1993 by a group of activists from various Belgian parties (PS, PRL-FDF) who had been disappointed in their respective parties’ attitudes towards. Many of its founders were also active in the association ‘Belgique Plus’ (the Belgian counterpart of the France Plus movement), which had backed most of the candidates of North African background who had stood for election in Brussels in 1991 on the PS, PSC and Ecolo lists. However, MERCI did not survive its electoral defeat. In the 1994 local elections it garnered less than 1% of the votes in each of the four municipalities where it fielded candidates.

The situation in the Brussels region (for a detailed analysis, see Lambert, 1996 : 267-291), where twelve of more than 80 candidates of North African descent were elected town councillors in 1994 (a first in the country’s history), differs considerably from those in the other two regions of the country. These councillors had various political affiliations (six Socialists, four Greens, and two FDF) and included three women. Since then, two of these councilmen have left their party (Ecolo) and are no longer in office, one was kicked out of the FDF in 1997 and now serves on the council as an independent, and an Ecolo alternate of Moroccan descent was called upon to sit on the council of an upper middle-class borough that has almost no non-European foreign residents. Four of a score of candidates are now on the Brussels-Capital Regional Council. Two candidates of Moroccan origin have been co-opted by their councilmen to serve on the boards of their respective municipalities’ welfare offices (CPAS/OCMV).

A single Albanian immigrant - a Muslim - managed to get onto the town council of Schaerbeek (in the Brussels-Capital Region) in 1995, when two of his fellow Green candidates withdrew from the party’s list. He himself decided to resign after only two years, for non political reasons. Three of this borough’s forty-seven councilmen are of Moroccan descent ; they were elected under three different parties, the Greens, PS, and FDF (now independent).

The sole candidate of Muslim Turkish descent in the nineteen boroughs of the Brussels-Capital region was a woman who stood for election on the Volksunie (Flemish nationalist party) list in Brussels proper (1994 municipal elections). She was a candidate again in the 1995 regional elections, along with four other Muslim Turks belonging to some small Far-left parties.

All in all, the Brussels Region can thus boast a total of nineteen elected representatives of Muslim immigrant backgrounds on the CPAS/OCMV boards, on town councils, or in the Brussels-Capital Regional Parliament between 1994 and 1997, although they were not necessarily serving their terms simultaneously. Only one of them - a practically illiterate blue-collar worker - belonged to the first generation of immigrant workers ; eight of them (including the Albanian) were born in Belgium or came as pre-schoolers ; whilst the remaining ten, who were born between 1946 and 1956, are former foreign students who had completed at least the Moroccan equivalent of the GCE A level by the time they were adults. Nine of the latter have at least one university degree or its equivalent - three in applied science and six in the humanities. Four of the second-generation political representatives also have university degrees in the humanities. Only two of the entire group of 19 councilmen/regional MPs worked in the private sector before being elected (one is an entrepreneur, the other in corporate management) ; eleven came from private social-development associations or the public sector ; three from State-owned companies ; and one from a ministerial office.

At least nine town councillors of North African descent - six of them women - were elected in Flanders in 1994. Two of them were elected to a second term : the CVP Aziz Cherkaoui, who was previously a simple town councilman, was elected to a three-year term as alderman at Roelers (Western Flanders), while Fatima Bali was re-elected in Antwerp because of her votes of preference, despite the fact that the Flemish Greens, Agalev, had relegated her to an ineligible position on the list of candidates. The political breakdown of these nine people was four SP, three Agalev, and two CVP. Except for Antwerp, all these municipal representatives were elected in towns in which Moroccans accounted for less than 1% of the population. They thus did not benefit from an ‘ethnic vote’. In addition, town councils appointed several people of Moroccan descent to serve on semi-official municipal bodies such as the welfare boards.

At least five town councillors of Arabic background were elected in Wallonia - four of them Socialists and one PSC. The Socialist Nefel Morcimen, for his part, was the sole citizen of Turkish origin to be elected (in Fleron, near Liege). An Ecolo lawyer of Moroccan descent had served half a term as town councillor prior to 1994. He was one of the candidates who failed to be elected but were co-opted by a semi-official local body (the CPAS board, in this case) after the elections.

Not a single candidate of North African, Turkish, or Albanian extraction was elected to the provincial council of either Flanders or Wallonia. Moreover, almost all of the candidates in these categories were fielded by marginal parties or movements, mainly the Belgian Workers’ Party (PTB-PVDA). None of the Green, Socialist, or Christian Democratic candidates of North African or Turkish extraction had the slightest chance of being elected to the Regional Councils or Federal Parliament in the 1995 elections, given their positions low down on the party lists, despite the sometimes considerable numbers of votes they brought their respective parties. This situation triggered some rather bitter reactions from the candidates, notably the Antwerp Greens, that were picked up by the press.

In the past, the Moroccans living in Belgium elected one deputy to the Moroccan Parliament. Their participation in Moroccan politics is now limited to referenda. In either case the organization of voting and information of the voters leaves much to be desired. The overwhelming majority of Moroccans in Belgium has never participated in a Moroccan election and is poorly informed about the political situation in their ‘home country’. For example, in May 1997 a number of Belgian councillors of Moroccan extraction did not know that municipal elections were being held in Morocco in June.

The Algerians living in the Benelux and Northern France elected a deputy to the Algerian Parliament in the June 1997 elections. Besides the four candidates of Algerian parties, two independent candidates tried in vain to gather the 400 signatures required to stand for election. Their attempt failed due to either lack of interest on the part of the potential voters or pressure exerted by the regime’s officials in charge of spreading propaganda in favour of the presidential candidate. Participation was low, given the stakes involved.

The Turkish emigrants’ situation is different. Turkey’s tumultuous political situation (the country has allowed multiparty politics since 1946) is followed closely by the country’s emigrants in Europe. Paradoxically, these emigrants have never been able to vote in a Turkish parliamentary election from overseas. However, Turks residing abroad may be able to vote in the coming legislative elections by virtue of a recent constitutional amendment. Turkish law prohibits political parties’ organizing abroad. Despite this, all of the Turkish political parties, from the Kemalist Social Democrats to the Republican People’s Party to the populist Islamic fundamentalists of the Party of Prosperity, are organized in Belgium and elsewhere in Europe under cover of ‘supporters’ associations’. Finally, the Albanian community from the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and Bosnian community can also vote by post or at their consulates in elections in their countries.


The PRL-FDF federation resulted from the 1993 union of the French-speaking ‘Liberal’ Party (PRL) and Democratic Federation of French-speaking Brussels (FDF)

see also: Immigrant media and broadcasts aimed at Muslim immigrants in Belgium

voir aussi:

citoyenneté, démocratie, ethnicité, nationalité -  citizenship, democracy, ethnicity, nationality