Conference: 'Democratic Renewal in Times of Polarisation. The Case of Belgium' - KU Leuven, Belgium, 19-20 September 2019

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Theme of the Conference

Democracy is in crisis: participation in elections is dropping, opinions are polarizing, and there is a widespread belief that parties and politicians fail to represent all citizens. This has created a strong push towards experimentation with various “democratic innovations”. Recent years have seen a veritable explosion in new forms of citizen participation and deliberation around the world. At the same time, there is a renewed interest in forms of “direct democracy” such as the referendum and the popular initiative.

Things seem different in Belgium. While politicians and citizens alike lament the “gap” between politics and citizens, little action is taken to close this gap. Calls for more direct citizen participation still face the spectre of the 1950 referendum on the Royal Question, which rocked Belgium to its very core and nearly split the country. This traumatic experience explains, at least partly, the hesitations to give citizens a more direct say.

Are such fears legitimate? What are the challenges and opportunities for citizen participation in a divided society such as Belgium? Can new modes of citizen participation live up to their expectations? And are they compatible with our received understanding of democratic legitimacy? This conference will take stock of democratic innovations around the world, will draw lessons – both practical and theoretical - from their successes and failures, and will ask how these lessons can be applied to the case of Belgium. This conference is explicitly multidisciplinary; it brings together scholars from political philosophy, democratic theory, empirical political science and constitutional law in order to discuss participatory innovations, their democratic legitimacy, and their applicability to the case of Belgium.