Bloednacht van Leuven.

Mourning procession for five victims of the demonstration for universal (male) suffrage in the market-place in Leuven, 1902 | Ghent, Amsab-ISG, pk000044

Power & Resistance
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Bloodbath in Leuven

Fighting for the Vote

In the evening of 18 April 1902 demonstrating workers marched through Leuven. They were protesting because parliament had just rejected the one man-one vote system. At nine o’clock in the evening the Civil Guardan official volunteer organisation for keeping public order, not a private militia. opened fire on the demonstrators. With fatal results: five demonstrators died on the spot, a sixth died the following day, fourteen were wounded. The event went down in history as the Bloodbath of Leuven.

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The demonstration was an initiative of the Belgian Workers’ Party and was part of a wider campaign for universal suffrage. Every man must be given one vote in the parliamentary elections, the Socialists believed. With demonstrations like this and even a general strike they wanted to assert their rights by force.

However, the Catholic government would not give in. The campaign ended in defeat, demonstrations like that in Leuven turned into a bloodbath. And the Leuven dead were not to be the last. The struggle to let everyone participate fully in politics was far from over.

Lokeren stemrecht.

Ghent, Amsab-ISG, fo009534

Workers in Lokeren strike for single-vote universal (male) suffrage in 1912.

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Fighting for the Vote

Until the end of the 19th century few Belgians had a say in politics. The census suffrage applied: only male Belgians who paid enough taxes, were allowed to vote. The drafters of the constitution regarded wealth as guarantee of political responsibility. In so doing they were confirming the existing power relations. In 1892 scarcely 2% of all Belgians decided who was elected to parliament.

The young Socialist movement wanted a change and demanded universal suffrage. Catholics and Liberals were afraid that the workers would vote en masse for the ‘radical’ Socialists and kept their foot firmly on the brake. In 1893, under pressure from protests and strikes parliament approved a compromise: universal male suffrage with plural voting rights, coupled with compulsory voting. All men over 25 must now vote, but anyone who was married, paid taxes or had studied, was given two or even three votes. In that way the elite remained dominant.

Socialists, from 1899 supported by the Liberals, continued to campaign for a fairer system: the one man-one vote system. That reform came only after the First World War, when revolution was brewing everywhere in Europe. After four years’ mobilisation of workers at the front political equality was bound to follow. In 1919 all men over 25 were given one vote. Women were excluded, apart from a small group.

Focal points


Leuven, KADOC-KU Leuven. kfa008015

The parliamentary elections of 26 June 1949 were the first to be conducted with universal female suffrage.

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Female Suffrage: a Long Road Full of Obstacles

Until far into the 20th century politicians from all parties believed that men and women had different capacities. Therefore they were assigned to different ‘spheres of life’. The demand of feminists to be able, like men, to take part in political life, met with much resistance.

Socialist politicians did talk about ‘equality’, but after 1902 their party interests took precedence and female suffrage was a bridge too far for them. Like the Liberals, they were afraid that women would mainly vote for their Catholic opponents. Catholic politicians did defend female suffrage, some from conviction, others also from electoral considerations. When they saw from 1912 on that male single universal suffrage could no longer be avoided, they hoped to win votes via universal female suffrage.

In 1919 a limited number of women did after all gain voting rights for parliament. Female resistance fighters, for example, as a reward for their patriotism, and war widows, in recognition of their dead husband. In 1921 all women were given the vote for the municipal council elections. The local political route was seen as a ‘training ground’ which was closer to the domain of women: the domestic sphere. In 1921 too women became electable, at municipal, provincial and national level. The right to vote in parliamentary elections did not follow until 1948.

The vote did not mean real influence. Parliament remained a male bastion. ‘Vote-woman’ campaigns from the 1970s on and the introduction of quotas in the electoral lists in 1994 gradually brought about a change.

't is mijn vriend, blijf eraf.

Ghent, Amsab-ISG, Rol

Ghent, 1988, Demonstration against racism, and for the introduction of migrant suffrage.

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Can Young Adults and Newcomers Vote Too?

After women gained the right to vote, it looked as if everyone in Belgium had the chance to vote for the government that he or she wanted. Because of compulsory voting everyone was obliged to go to the voting booth. Still, some groups remained excluded.

Young people gained the vote only gradually. In 1970 the government lowered the age from 21 to 18 for municipal councils, in 1979 for the European Parliament and in 1981 for the Belgian parliament. Since 2015 some political parties and organisations have been arguing for the giving of the vote to young people from the age of 16. The young people themselves are divided on the issue. Since 2022 they have been able to vote from that age in European elections.

And what about those who were not citizens of Belgium although they lived there? Should not this group also have say in things? In 1996 immigrants from the countries of the European Union were given the right to vote in municipal elections. Giving non-Europeans the vote was more difficult. Supporters in the migrant communities and outside saw the ‘migrant right to vote’ as an important step towards participation. Opponents saw increased influence for the growing group of migrants mainly as a social threat. In 2004 the migrant right to vote was introduced, but only for local elections and for those who had lived for at least five years in Belgium.

Karel Waeri bekwaamheidsexamen.
Ghent, Amsab-ISG, dip000091

Electoral diploma of the Ghent folksinger Karel Waeri (1842-1898). In 1883 the liberal government widened the franchise to include so-called ‘competent voters’. Those who wished to could sit an exam to prove they were ‘competent’ to vote in the municipal and provincial elections.

La loi des quatre infamies.
KU Leuven, University Library, Collectie Vervliet-Henderick

Whoever is rich and powerful, has more to say. This cartoon attacks multiple-vote suffrage. After the Catholic government reformed municipal suffrage some citizens were given as many as four votes.

Kasteel van Loppem.
Zedelgem, Gemeentearchief

The castle of Loppem near Bruges was the residence of King Albert I at the end of the First World War. The liberal Paul-Emile Janson (1872-1944) and the Socialist Edward Anseele were the first politicians from occupied Belgium to discuss matters here with the king on 11 November 1918. In their view immediate introduction of single-vote universal (male) suffrage was a necessity.

Vereniging van de Adel van het Koninkrijk België

In 1921 Léonie Keingiaert de Gheluvelt (1885-1966) was one of the first six female burgomasters. Her aristocratic, Catholic family had long held the position of mayor in Geluveld, today a sub-district of Zonnebeke.

Marie Spaak-Janson.
Brussels, Archief Senaat

The Socialist Marie Janson (1873-1960) became the first woman to sit in the Belgian parliament. She took the oath in 1921 as a co-opted senator in the company of 152 men. In this photo from 1949 women still number only seven out of 175 members of the Senate, including Marie Janson.

Marguerite De Riemaecker-Legot.
Belga Image

In 1966 the Christian-Democrat Marguerite De Riemaecker-Legot (1913-1977) from Oudenaarde  became the first female minister in Belgium. She was given the ministerial post of ‘Family and Housing’ in the Harmel government.

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