Parliaments do not constitute the true epicentre of policymaking in traditional consociational democracies like Belgium or the Netherlands. Historically, consensus seeking by the political elite has been a key remedy against the threat of immobilism and instability in these countries with deep-rooted cleavages based on religion, class and language (Lijphart, 1977). In Belgium, in particular, parliament has been “the victim of the subtle equilibrium that is constantly needed for governing a divided society” (Deschouwer, 2009, p. 188). Major political conflicts have typically been appeased through reforms or pacts negotiated by (extra-parliamentary) party leaders in more secluded environments rather than in the conflictual parliamentary arena (Deschouwer, 1999; Dewachter, 2002). But also in the Netherlands, consociational logic long implied a “top-down approach to politics” (Andeweg, 2019, p. 413) that included a depoliticisation of controversial issues and government’s right to govern without too much interference from parliament (Koole, 2018; Lijphart, 1975).
This is the editorial to the special issue Parliaments in the Low Countries: Representing Divided Societies which I co-edited with Benjamin de Vet.