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Podcast: Belgium 1971 (History Corner #8)

KU Leuven University Library. Photo: Wentao Jiang (CC BY-SA 4.0)

In this month’s History Corner, we turn back fifty years to an election held at the beginning of Belgium’s process of federalisation along linguistic lines. The incumbent coalition between the centre-right, Christian democratic ‘political family’ and the centre-left Socialist Party faced insurgent Flemish and Walloon nationalist and regionalist movements.

Hello and welcome to another volume of the Europe Elects History Corner.  This week we are looking back just over 50 years to the 1971 Belgian legislative election, a vote which took place at the beginning of Belgium’s transformation into a federal state along linguistic lines.  

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November, 1971.  The United States conducted its largest ever underground nuclear detonation at Amchitka Island in Alaska as part of the Operation Grommet tests; the world’s first microprocessor was released by Intel; Oman gained independence from the United Kingdom; the People’s Republic of China formally assumed the Republic of China’s seat on the United Nations Security Council; and, in Belgium, voters took part in an election to elect their next national parliament.

The 1971 Belgian election took place in the context of a process of constitutional reform known as the Belgian state reforms.  Since the country’s independence from the Netherlands in 1831, Belgium had been split primarily between French-speaking Wallonia and Dutch, or Flemish-speaking, Flanders.  For much of the state’s history, French enjoyed a privileged position over Dutch.  Stability was maintained within a system referred to as pillarisation, networks of groups and institutions that people across Belgian society could associate with.  This could include the fields of education, the media, banking and culture.  The three traditional pillars were Catholicism, liberalism and latterly socialism, though even here divides between Flanders and Wallonia began to be felt; where the Catholic pillar was dominant in Flanders, in Wallonia the socialist pillar held significant sway.   By the 20th century and particularly after the Second World War, political, economic and social differences began to boil over between Flanders and Wallonia. 

In one particular example, the return of King Leopold III drove a political wedge between Flanders, where he enjoyed popular support, and Wallonia, where he was widely accused of disloyalty and acting contrary to the constitution during the war.  In 1950, a successful referendum on the question of his return to the throne produced divergent results in Flanders and Wallonia, and triggered a general strike in Wallonia that threatened to escalate into civil conflict. This tense situation was eased only by his subsequent abdication in 1951.  

Later, a programme of budget cuts introduced by Flemish Prime Minister Gaston Eyskens in the early 1960s produced further strikes by French-language trade unions, which viewed the austerity policies as distinctly harmful to francophone interests.  This led to a degree of regionalising economic policies to prevent additional unrest in Wallonia.

Although the cause of Flemish nationalism had been discredited in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, accused of flirting too closely with fascism and the Nazi occupation, it began to see a renaissance in the 1960s.  These linguistic and cultural divisions came to a head in 1967 when student movements drove a wave of protest and unrest.  The protests were particularly directed at the Catholic University of Leuven, a university located in Flanders that had initially taught solely in French, and though lectures in Dutch had been provided from 1930, French remained the dominant and most prestigious language.  

Sparked by proposals to establish new French-language institutions in the surrounding area within Flanders, Flemish nationalists campaigned for the linguistic division of the university in order to promote the status of the Dutch language and Flemish culture more widely.  The student mobilisation successfully led to the university’s division into separate French and Dutch-language institutions in 1968

Such pressures for linguistic autonomy, particularly within Flanders, began to have political implications.  From the 1920s, Belgium had experienced a two-and-a-half party system dominated by the centre-right Catholic Party and centre-left Labour Party – both renamed after the war as the Christian Social Party and Socialist Party – while the Liberal Party provided a third smaller force, alongside a handful of minor parties.  With the exception of one brief Liberal premiership, these two parties led every Belgian government between 1884 and 1968, usually in coalition with the Liberal Party though sometimes as grand coalitions.  

After the 1968 election, which saw Christian democrat Gaston Eyskens return to power in a coalition with the Socialist Party, and partly in response to the Leuven University affair, his Christian Social Party split into two separate linguistic component parties – the French Christian Social Party, which kept the former name, and the Dutch Christian People’s Party.  

Although almost every party would ultimately follow this division into linguistic components, the strength of the Christian Social Party in Flanders meant that it was particularly influenced by the growth in Flemish political consciousness.  It should be emphasised that, while formally separate parties, the Christian Social Party and Christian People’s Party continued to cooperate closely, giving rise to the concept of ‘political families’ spanning across the linguistic divide, which would become a defining feature of Belgian politics in the decades to come.

Within this context, and in response to growing support for regionalist parties, Gaston Eyskens – now in his third separate stint as Prime Minister – oversaw Belgium’s first State Reform.  In 1970, three cultural communities were established: the Dutch Cultural Community, French Cultural Community and the German Cultural Community for the small German-speaking territory in east Belgium.  These Communities gained autonomous control over cultural matters, including broadcasting and language policy.  For the time being, these policies were determined by cultural councils composed of elected MPs from each region.  Belgium remained a unitary state but these cultural reforms set the foundations for the country’s federalisation in the 1980s and 1990s. 

This finally brings us to the 1971 general election, the first to be held since the State Reform and the Christian Democrats’ linguistic divisions.  Leading a grand coalition between the Christian democratic parties and the Socialist Party, Gaston Eyskens sought a second successive term.  The Socialist Party remained a formally united party but opted to run separate lists in Wallonia and Flanders, led by former Minister of State Edmond Leburton and journalist Jos Van Eynde respectively.  A third joint list was also run in Brussels.  The Liberal Party, which had been renamed the Party for Freedom and Progress, also ran separate lists in Flanders and Wallonia while remaining a unified party.

In addition, and perhaps unsurprisingly in light of recent developments, the election was contested by numerous regional and language-based parties. The cause of Flemish nationalism had begun to recover from its postwar setback with the formation of the People’s Union in 1954, which had gained seats in every subsequent election.  By 1968 the People’s Union represented about 10% of seats in the lower house Chamber of Representatives.  On the Walloon side, the French-language Democratic Front of Francophones had been formed in 1964 and contested the 1968 election in an alliance with the regionalist Walloon Rally, winning 12 seats between them.  These parties maintained their alliance entering into the 1971 election.

The election was also contested by the Belgian Communist Party, a relatively minor force in Belgian politics after its brief period of electoral success in the immediate postwar years, but still able to pick up a handful of seats in each election.

Despite the ongoing transformation of Belgian society and public life, the election – using party list proportional representation – did not bring about any kind of radical rupture.  The Christian Democrats performed better in Flanders than Wallonia as the political family secured a combined 67 seats, down just two from the Social Christian Party’s 1968 tally.  The Socialist Party performed similarly, falling from 59 seats to 57.  The incumbent coalition thereby only lost four seats in total, remaining 12 seats above the majority threshold and in a strong position to negotiate a second term in office.

The most dramatic shift affected the liberal Party for Freedom and Progress, which lost about a quarter of its seats as it fell from 47 to 34 seats.  The main beneficiary of this drop were the Walloon regionalists, who doubled their combined share of seats from 12 to 24 to catch up with their Flemish counterparts, the People’s Union, which also picked up an extra seat.  Walloon regionalism has been described as an ‘anti-movement’ responding to the growth of Flemish political nationalism, and this election certainly witnessed a strong manifestation of this.

As a result, regionalist parties now held a record 45 seats between them, constituting 20% of the parliament.  This would, however, mark a high point for the Walloon Rally, which it would never again surpass.  Among the minor parties, the Communist Party was able to hold on to its previous five seats, while the minor centre-left Red Lions party gained four – the only seats it would ever win in a Belgian election.  The overall balance of power was mostly similar in the Senate, Belgium’s upper house, where a third of the seats were up for election.  

The majority of Belgium’s electoral districts were won by the Christian Democrat lists, while the Socialist Party gained the plurality in a horizontal strip running along the north of Wallonia, replicating the electoral geography of every other postwar Belgian election.  In Flanders, the People’s Union supplanted the Party for Freedom and Progress as the region’s third force, though were unable to win any district pluralities.  Meanwhile, the Democratic Front of Francophones and Walloon Rally alliance won in Brussels, an ostensibly bilingual city with a majority francophone population and where the backlash against Flemish cultural assertion had been particularly pronounced.

Image: Wikibelgiaan (CC BY-SA 4.0)

With most movement taking place between the Party for Freedom and Progress and the regionalist parties, the governing coalition’s position was largely unaffected.  As neither the Christian Democratic bloc nor the Socialist Party had the numbers to form a majority with the Party for Freedom and Progress, a second grand coalition was negotiated.  Although the Socialist Party emerged the single largest party, the Christian democratic political family retained its plurality, allowing Gaston Eyskens to be re-elected Prime Minister with the Socialist Party continuing as a junior partner.

This new government continued to grapple with linguistic issues.  It was particularly plagued by the question of Voeren, a Flemish region in the east of the country split between speakers of French and Limburgish, a language related to German and Dutch.  Eyskens’ inability to resolve the status of Voeren led to the fall of his government in 1973, after which he stepped down as Prime Minister for a third and final time.  He handed over to a short-lived government led by Socialist Party leader Edmond Leburton, which continued the grand coalition until the next election in 1974.  

The 1971 election did not produce any major realignment in Belgian politics.  The governing coalition was able to comfortably remain in power, and even the growth of regionalist parties, fuelled by a Walloon and francophone response to Flemish nationalism, only continued the trend of the past decade.  But the election was significant as a first step towards the country’s political division along linguistic lines.  The Christian Social Party became the first to formally split into two separate component parties, while most other parties began to field separate lists within Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels.  Linguistic issues also became firmly entrenched as the major issue of Belgian politics, following on from the First State Reform.  This would ultimately lead to Belgium’s full federalisation by the 1990s and remains a key issue in Belgium’s complex political environment today.

As for Gaston Eyskens, he would enjoy fifteen years of retirement in which he served as Honorary President of the Belgian Economics Association.  He died in 1988 at the age of 83 in, of all places, Leuven, the location of the university that had caused him such difficulties in office.


Maddens, Bart, ‘Secessionist Strategies: the Case of Belgium,’ Colleción Monografías (2017), pp. 55-62.

Van Haute, Emilie & Pilet, Jean-Benoit, ‘Regionalist Parties in Belgium (VU, RW, FDF): Victims of Their Own Success?’ Regional and Federal Studies 16.3 (September 2006), pp. 297-313.

Witte, Els, Craybeckx, Jan & Meynen, Alain, Political History of Belgium: From 1830 Onwards (Brussels, 2009).