Mr. Townsend to Mr. Hay.

No. 132.]

Sir: I have the honor to inform the Department that the revision of the Belgium constitution proposed by the Liberals and Socialists (the opposition) was yesterday rejected by the House of Representatives, the final vote being 84 against revision to 64 in favor of it, the Government thus gaining a victory by a majority of 20 votes.

As the Department is aware, the agitation in favor of universal suffrage in Belgium became acute in 1893, at which time the Conservative or Catholic party, which has now been in power uninterruptedly for the past eighteen years, was strongly opposed to granting universal suffrage, but agreed to what was called a compromise, in the shape of universal suffrage based on a system of plural voting.

The following scheme was adopted:

  • One vote to every male citizen of 25 years of age, with the exception of idiots and criminals.
  • One supplementary vote, known as the property vote, to every citizen of 25 years of age in possession of real estate to the value of 2,000 francs ($400).
  • One supplementary vote, known as the family vote, to every married male citizen of 35 years of age, or widower with legitimate issue, who pays to the State personal taxes amounting to at least 5 francs ($1) per annum.
  • One supplemental vote, known as the educational vote, to every male citizen of 25 years of age in possession of a diploma from a university, college, or high school.
  • Three votes being maximum allowed to any one citizen who may be included in several of the above categories.

This was the system offered by the Government in 1893 as a step toward universal suffrage; it was adopted at that time and has been in vogue ever since.

The Liberals, Socialists, and workingmen generally, have never been satisfied with this system of plural voting, which they claim entirely favors the Conservative and Catholic party. They maintain that in the rural districts, where the people are under the influence of the priests, the opportunities for the perpetration of frauds at elections are greatly enhanced by this system.

When this plural system was practically applied it failed to yield the results claimed by its advocates, and at the last general election for Representatives the votes polled by the combined Liberals and Socialists virtually equalled those of the Clericals, yet the latter, by this plural system, actually obtained a majority of 18 votes in the House of Representatives.

The struggle between labor and capital in Belgium has become extremely acute in the past few years. A large industrial population, confined to a small superficial area, with long hours of labor and small wages, have combined to produce a feeling of discontent among the working classes, who, perhaps unjustly, blame the existing Government for a condition of affairs which may be due to economic conditions rather than political.

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This is a factor which may be largely responsible for the rapid growth of Socialism in Belgium during the past few years. Liberals and Socialists have combined to fight for universal suffrage, and have raised the cry “one man one vote” as a panacea for the existing ills.

The Clericals maintain that the existing system of plural voting meets the present requirements of the country; that it places a premium on education, and acts as a check to the power of the ignorant, who are prone to resort to violence and disorder.

The more moderate Liberals in the House of Representatives expressed a willingness to accept a compromise in the shape of a total abolition of the triple vote, granting one vote at 25 years and a second vote to married men of 35 or 40 years, with legitimate issue. The Clericals, however, would not consider a compromise and opposed revision in any form.

During the past fortnight, while the debates on the subject of revision were being held in the House of Representatives, the socialists and workingmen have held nightly meetings at the Maison du Peuple, and have frequently paraded the streets shouting for universal suffrage and “one man one vote.” The Liberal members, as well as some of the socialist leaders in the House, have cautioned the paraders to be calm, to avoid violence and disorder. But the ranks of the paraders have been swelled by the addition of the representatives of the very lowest and criminal classes of the population, the result being a conflict with the police followed by the breaking of windows and other damages to property. Shots were exchanged between the gendarmes and rioters, several of the latter being killed and wounded. Similar scenes were at the same time enacted in other towns in Belgium consequently the Government called out the troops.

Order has been restored, but the streets of Brussels, as well as the large towns, are lined with soldiers. A general strike has taken place in all the industrial centers of Belgium, with the avowed object of forcing the Government to grant universal suffrage, but without success. The feeling of unrest is very general all over the country, but whether the strikers return to work, now that the fight for universal suffrage has been lost in the House of Representatives, remains to be seen.

I give, without comment, for the information of the Department, the above sketch, embracing the salient points of both sides of the political controversy, which is at present agitating Belgium.

I have, etc.,

Lawrence Townsend.