Is Democracy viable without a unified public opinion? The Swiss experience and the Belgian case

Re-Bel e-book 3, published in English in June 2009, 53 pages.

Lead piece: Nenad Stojanovic (Universität Zürich)
Editors: Dave Sinardet (UA) and Marc Hooghe (KULeuven)


How should a multilingual — or at least bilingual — country such as Belgium address the specific challenges it faces because of the absence of a unified public opinion? This e-book discusses several aspects of this central question. Can we really speak of ‘two public opinions’? Is so, should we regard this as a problem? Does this form an obstacle to the organization of a democratic and efficient Belgian federation? Can and should something be done about this? In particular, might a form of direct democracy provide an interesting option for restoring a sense of unity? Could other forms of institutional engineering help? What is the role of the media in all this? Can other multilingual countries be of inspiration?

A positive answer to this last question is the premise of the lead piece of this book, by Swiss political scientist Nenad STOJANOVIĆ. One of the reasons for the success of the Swiss multilingual polity, he claims, is the routine use of procedures of direct democracy. Frequent referenda work as a unifying factor: everyone participates and for each referendum new cleavages and coalitions arise, thus allowing for the development of cross-cutting forms of conflict and loyalty. Moreover, participation in this democratic procedure becomes by itself a reason for national pride and a component of national identity.

Most authors in this e-book question the suggestion that this system could also be implemented in the Belgian case. Marnix BEYEN challenges Stojanović’s neo-institutionalist perspective, by arguing that public opinion in Flanders and Wallonia was already divided in a distant past. At the same time, he asks why a divided public opinion should be considered a problem. It is rather constitutive of democracy. 

Marc REYNEBEAU looks back at the historical role political institutions have played in the shaping of Belgian identity and argues that regional identities are also constructed by political and media discourses. 

Marc HOOGHE challenges the view that there is a sharp difference between the public opinions of the country’s two communities. Empirical research shows that differences often are not significant. Furthermore, Hooghe states that direct democracy can easily be used for different purposes and proposes a number of other institutional reforms, aimed at parties and organizations.

Dave SINARDET too is skeptical about the benefits of direct democracy for Belgium’s multilingual democracy. In Belgium, it is the organization of political parties, the electoral system and the media system that lead to the existence of two separate public spheres. These contribute to the (incorrect) representation of two homogeneous and opposed public opinions, which forms fruitful ground for ethno-nationalist discourse. Hence, a federal electoral district might be a more effective institutional change.

Marc LITS elaborates on the role of the mass media in the construction of Flemish and Walloon national identities. Since the media cater only for the information needs of their own community, they have no interest in paying much attention to what happens in the other community. 

The final comments are by the Belgian correspondents of two foreign papers. Jeroen VAN DER KRIS emphasizes that there is a distinctive ‘Belgian way of life’, often not noticed by Belgians themselves. This belgitude can be found among both the Dutch-speaking and French-speaking inhabitants of the country. Jean-Pierre STROOBANTS is more skeptical and draws attention to the strong conflicts that have recently arisen as a result of Flemish nationalism.

In his response, Nenad STOJANOVIC vindicates his plea for direct democracy as a tool for better organizing multilingual democracies and qualifies its relevance to the Belgian case.