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Conference Papers Year : 2013

Chairman versus Party Leader: Who is really in charge?


This paper focuses on the role and the influence of party leaders in Belgium, in the specific context of the run-up to the 2014 elections. The forthcoming campaign will bring these leaders, who were highly visible during the 540-days crisis, back to the political forefront. Indeed, one of the main functions of party leaders is related to the candidates’ selection, and they are also the main spokesmen of their party. There is no denying that party leaders occupy a central place in Western democracies (Leduc 2001, McAllister, 1996, Marsh 1993, in Cross and Blais 2012:128). Nevertheless, we would like to test the hypothesis that, even if Belgium is known as a strong ‘partycracy’, the role and the influence of party leaders is gradually weakened by the decentralization process. In this context, it is useful to distinguish the formal and statutory leader of the party, than we shall call the “chairman”, and one (or even those) that enjoys an executive function, bypassing the traditional operating model. The latter shall be called the de facto party leader. On the prospective side, the main goal of this paper consists in discussing new research avenues on Belgian politics, that could be further explored in the future. On the descriptive side, this paper will include an overview over all Belgian parties: Who is the chairman of the party? Who are the possible party leaders? See, as instance: Beke v. Peeters (CD&V), Tobback v. Vande Lanotte (spa), Magnette v. Di Rupo (PS), Michel v. Reynders (MR), etc. Regarding the impact of the federalization process on parties and their leaders, at first sight one might rather think that their role has been enhanced: indeed, they could have become the main communication channel between the various federal entities, or between the Flemish or French counterparts. We would like to highlight some facts and trends that show that this does not seem to be currently the case. Quite the contrary, we argue that the federalization process contributes to the party leaders’ loss of legitimacy in some key areas. In order to demonstrate it, the paper will focus on three elements. Firstly, even if the Belgian party leaders’ role is only vaguely defined, it is widely acknowledged that they are entitled to arbitrate conflicts, and have a role of coordination. Today, with the increased complexity of the Belgian structure, this kind of task looks daunting. See as instance how hard it is, since two years, to get to an agreement on what is called “usurped competences”. Tensions have emerged in all parties between federal and regional level, and even led to opposition between members of the same party (of course for those who are in charge at both levels). Moreover, particularly on the French-speaking side, it is instructive to see how the regional oppositions between Brussels and Wallonia can potentially disturb the party chairman, who should be able to defend policies that are in contradiction and uncoordinated, even more if a party leader comes into play. Secondly, we can report a testimony from former CVP leader Frank Swaelen (1981-1988) who declared: “Public opinion and the media regard the party leaders as the oracle of the party and expect him to declare the definite truth on no matter what issue. They expect him to say: ‘So be it! This is the party’s point of view’ ” (F. Swaelen cited in Fiers 1998:246, translation of Potgunke and Webb (2005): 138-139). Today, how can we analyze such statement? Is it possible under current conditions to be the oracle of the party? In a context of globalization and legislative overproduction, is it possible to know the truth (or simply to have a say about it) on no matter what issue? Does the chairman have sufficient political staff (compared to the resources allocated to an executive function)? In a system in which the media coverage is particularly important, do they have the ability to exist on a day-to-day basis, or do they only play a role in the media on Sunday interviews? Thirdly, as far as their role in the institutional negotiations is concerned, we can also have some doubts about their effective room for maneuver. The institutional reforms are actually prepared by the two Secretaries of State and party chairmen do approve most of the proposals. Moreover, they are very dependent on their ministers’ offices for the preparation of negotiations. Party leaders, as Ministers, carefully monitor all the process and do not hesitate to “push” the party chairmen, sometimes even in the media, when the choices made by the party do not seem right to them. Catherine XHARDEZ Université Saint-Louis (CReSPo) Bibliography Cross, William, Blais, André (2012). ‘Who selects the party leader?’, Party Politics 18: 127-150. Fiers, Stefaan (1998). Partijvoorzitters in België, of ‘Le parti c’est moi’. Leuven: Afdeling politologie (thesis), 426 pp. Leduc, Larry (2001). ‘Democratizing Party Leadership Selection’, Party Politics 7: 323-341. Marsh, Michael (1993). ‘Selecting Party Leaders in the Republic of Ireland’, European Journal of Political Research 24: 295-316. McAllister, Ian (1996). ‘Leaders’, in Lawrence LeDuc et al. (eds) Comparing Democracies: Elections and Voting in Global Perspective. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Poguntke, Thomas, Webb, Paul (eds) (2005). The Prezidentialization of Politics: A Comparative Study of Modern Democracies. New York: Oxford University Press.
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hal-03399478 , version 1 (24-10-2021)



Catherine Xhardez. Chairman versus Party Leader: Who is really in charge?. 2nd edition of the conference "Belgium: the State of the Federation", Oct 2013, Université catholique de Louvain, Belgium. ⟨hal-03399478⟩
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