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Belgian workers general strike to end plurality voting system, 1902
Throughout the 1800’s in Belgium, political repression and the prioritization of the interests of wealthy citizens led to a government that didn’t reflect the political views of its people. Despite their popularity among the citizenry, Socialists were almost fully excluded from the Parliament. Thus, during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, workers leveraged their populist power by conducting approximately twenty general strikes across the country, with goals of accurate representation and fair working condition. The Belgian General Strike of 1893, led by Emile Vandervelde, a Socialist leader, was successful in securing universal suffrage for men. However, it came with the caveat of the plural vote -- certain voters (property owners, wealthy), received multiple votes, reflecting their greater influence and political capitol in Belgian society.
In the first elections held after the institution of the compromised universal suffrage, Emile Vandervelde was elected to the Belgian Parliament. Soon after, he was elected President of the International Socialists Bureau. In 1899, the Belgian Parliament took up legislation that would further erode the universal suffrage by providing increased representation for Catholic neighborhoods. Despite his opposition to the legislation, Vandervelde was outnumbered by a coalition of Liberal representatives, and, in order to maintain political capitol, voted for the bill that he opposed. Vandervelde then appealed to his socialist supporters to take to the streets against the bill. When the workers demonstrated against the legislation the police confronted them, and violence ensued.
As the spring of 1902 began the violence continued, and street demonstrations continued against the legislation. Vandervelde, confident in the growing Socialist coalition in Parliament, argued that true universal suffrage could be achieved through legal motions in the Parliament. He promised that if this didn’t prove possible, the party would call an immediate general strike, just as they had done to attain the increase in suffrage in 1893.
On 8 April 1902 Parliament reconvened for a spring term and the workers intensified their demonstrations. The Walloon Socialists, representing the interests of some 120,000 miners, pressed the Belgium Workers Party, Belgium’s nationwide socialist party, for an immediate strike, but the Workers Party leadership resisted, concerned about losing control of the situation.
After the Walloons' call, miners immediately began to strike, followed in quick succession by the metalworkers and colliers. Finally, on 13 April the Conseil Général (General Council) of the Belgium Workers Party declared a general strike, stating that the “majority of the working class had already decided to proclaim the general strike.” This declaration was followed by the textile workers, the only women involved, joining the strike.
After the official declaration from the party, the violent riots and demonstrations ceased, and the strike became peaceful. With the memory of previous successful strikes, upwards of 300,000 striking demonstrators, roughly half of Belgium’s working population, congregated outside of Parliament 13-18 April in support of a new bill introduced by Vandervelde that would create true universal suffrage.
Despite the crowds and support, a majority in Parliament voted against the bill on 18 April 1902.
The Workers Party, buoyed by the size of the demonstrations, vowed to continue their strike until Parliament reconsidered the bill.
That night, the Belgian civil guard fired into the crowd of protestors, injuring fourteen and killing six. Hoping to avoid any further violence, the mourning Conseil Général voted to end the strike. Thus concluded the 1902 general strike.
Belgium next experienced a general strike in 1905, with a goal of wage increase, but it wasn’t until 1913 that the Socialist Party returned to the suffrage question again. The successful abolition of unequal suffrage didn’t come until 1919.