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ECPR Futures Lab 2020

50 Years of Belgian Federalism: A Longitudinal Analysis of Political Discourse Across Six State Reforms

Comparative Perspective
François Randour
Université catholique de Louvain
François Randour
Université catholique de Louvain
Min Reuchamps
Université catholique de Louvain
Audrey Vandeleene
Ghent University

There is a growing attention among scholars on the analysis of conflicts in divided societies. They highlight an interesting paradox at the heart of linguistically divided democracies and especially of federal countries. Federalism is often seen as a solution to reduce tensions and reach compromises, yet it also fosters additional tensions (e.g. demands for self-rule). While studies of federalism have discussed the institutional and political nature of federalising reforms, one main question remains: how do elites sell these reforms to the public? Belgium provides a case in point to study such dynamics, with a long-started opposition between two linguistic groups (Flemish and Francophones) that led to six State reforms in forty years.
Building on an interdisciplinary approach bringing together political science and linguistics, this paper investigates the discourses of Belgian politicians on federalism through the six Belgian State reforms. We analyse discourses of Belgian politicians during television debates from the time of the first State reforms in the 1980’s until present time. We rely on an original longitudinal corpus of 127 (part of) television debates covering 40 years from both public broadcasters in Belgium: the Dutch-speaking VRT and the French-speaking RTBF. The selected television debates relate to the progressive – albeit not without political tensions – transformation of Belgium’s federal system. Our corpus is thus a solid indicator of this political transformation and allows identifying, for the different State reforms, how Belgian political elites framed their standpoints on this critical issue.
A quantitative and qualitative content analysis will be used to identify the selling points used by elites to defend or criticise the State reforms. As a State reform is quite complex and technical, it is crucial to identify how elites of both linguistic groups present this to the public to make it more or less desirable. Our analysis covers two dimensions: (1) it considers the evolution of discourses on Belgian federalism and State reforms longitudinally starting from the beginning of the 1980’s until 2016. It thus allows questioning if and how elite discourses evolved alongside State reforms. (2) It compares the discourses between and within Belgian linguistic communities. Are there differences between Dutch-speaking and French-speaking politicians on the way they conceive these reforms? The paper offers an original approach to analyse how political elites communicate on and perceive evolutions of federalism.
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