Keep it in the family, by Alan Hope

On the eve of the General Election asked the journalist Alan Hope to look at the state of Belgium. Alan Hope is the news editor of Flanders Today, a weekly newspaper covering Flanders in English. He has lived in Belgium for 26 years. Visit for a free subscription to Flanders Today .

The Americans had their Bushes and Clintons, and of course their Kennedys.

The British have had their William Pitts, and even their Winston Churchills.

However it’s true to say that democracy, on the whole, abhors a dynasty.

But not in Belgium. Here in Belgium, it’s considered as fit and proper for a boy to follow his father into politics as if they were going down a mine.

The coming election presents a bumper crop.

The principal among them is Alexander De Croo (photo), president of Open VLD and son of Herman.

He’s been in the job since last December, after an election victory remarkable because it was effectively his entry into politics.

Until his election to the presidency, he hadn’t held a single mandate, and had stood only once, in the European elections of 2009.

Behind him, in the shadows of the party, is another dauphin: Jean-Jacques De Gucht is the son of Karel, formerly foreign minister, now exiled to the European Commission.

Jean-Jacques is notable for having worked a total of three days in his life at a real job – working for an ice-cream company – before taking up his place in the Senate.

Still with the Flemish liberals, there’s Willem-Frederik Schiltz, son of the late Hugo, who was once a central figure in the creation of the federal Belgian state. And Mathias De Clercq, grandson of the former minister Willy.

Over at the CD&V there’s Peter Van Rompuy, son of Herman, whose family now contains more politically active members than the Medicis.

The Walloons are at it, too, with the likes of Melchior Wathelet (photo), son of Melchior, famous for letting Marc Dutroux out of prison to carry on killing and raping; and Alain Mathot, son of the late Guy, whose political career ended in the mire of the Augusta helicopters scandal.

Is it a good thing to have such political bloodlines? On the one hand, it makes little difference.

The lists of candidates in Belgium (as elsewhere) are drawn up by party managers, and those lists are more important to a particular person’s eligibility than anything the voter might do.

One’s position on a list determines one’s chances of winning a seat. Since there are rarely major swings in Belgian elections, only one or two places on the list are ever in any doubt.

That’s excluding, incidentally, the whole business of people standing for seats which they have no intention of ever occupying – a subject that deserves an article all of its own.

The trouble with dynastic politics is that it contributes to the climate of antipolitiek which all politicians of all parties complain of.

It sets up a two-tier system within parties, in which party activists work for years pounding the pavements and pressing the flesh, only to see the scions of political families rise effortlessly to the top.

As a result, they become discouraged, and possibly even give up altogether.

The membership of political parties is on the slide, as is the numbers of actual party activists.

Soon, political parties will have no grass roots left, at which point their very legitimacy can be called into question.

If that happens, as history shows, you might as well be the head of the Bourbons or the Romanovs, as a De Croo or a Wathelet. If you don’t have the backing of the people, your pedigree won’t help when the people turn against you.