When Luc Huyse tried in 1971 to apply Lijphart’s model of consociational democracy to Belgium, he initially looked at the period between 1944 and 1961. He had very good reasons to finish his analysis in 1961, because that marked the end of a long period of political stability. After 1961, and especially after the critical elections of 1965, the Belgian political system went through radical changes. Many have therefore assumed that 1961 or 1965 marked the end of Belgian consociational democracy (Deschouwer, 1994a). The most striking change in the Belgian political system since the 1960s has been the reform of Belgium’s unitary state into a federal one, and yet an examination of both the way in which this task was undertaken and the manner in which the federal state functions, allows one to recognise some typical features of consociationalism, which would thus appear to have been reintroduced through the back door.
The aim of this chapter is to examine the role of Belgium’s pillar parties, with a view to establishing the extent to which they constitute central actors in the country’s particular version of consociational democracy. We will show how central and crucial the role of the pillar parties has been. Furthermore, we will demonstrate that the way in which these parties reacted to regionalist tensions in the 1960s led inexorably to state reform. We will also describe how this federal state reform has a very distinctive consociational flavour, by maintaining and reinforcing the position of the pillar parties at the heart of the political arena.
This chapter will consist of three parts. First, we will give a short overview of the growth and development of Belgium’s subcultures and pillar parties, as well as of the structures and techniques of overarching consociational accommodation. Second, we will assess the changing role of the pillar parties within Belgium’s consociational democracy. Following Luther’s framework, as laid out in Chapter 1 of this volume, we will look both at the pillar parties’ role of ‘vertical’ linkage within their respective subcultures, and at their ‘horizontal’ role in inter-subcultural interaction. Finally, we will look at the process of institutional reform, which resulted in the establishment of a federal state, and will outline both its consociational aspects and the role which the pillar parties have adopted within