18 March 1950: Collapse of the Belgian Government

When the Belgian people voted in a referendum on the return of their king in March 1950 he had been in exile in Switzerland for five years. The question of King Leopold III’s return to Belgium had remained unanswered since the end of the Second World War and a settlement of the matter was required.

The Germans had invaded Belgium on 10 May 1940 and, eighteen days later, Leopold surrendered his country unconditionally. He refused to join the government in exile in London and was made a prisoner in his castle at Laken for the rest of the war. His actions led to accusations of co-operation with the Nazis.

At the end of the war the Belgian parliament exiled him. In the referendum on Sunday 12 March 1950, in which voting was compulsory, 57.7% of the votes cast were in favour of Leopold’s return. This overall majority hid differences between regions. For example, in Flanders there was a 72% majority in favour but a large majority against in the Walloon region.

The government, a Catholic-Liberal coalition, was also split. The Liberals would not accept the king’s return because there was not a majority in favour in all areas. On 18 March the Liberals pulled out of the coalition and the government collapsed.

Two days later the Belgian parliament approved Leopold’s return from exile, but strikes and protest marches were organised calling for his abdication. On Leopold’s return in July the protests turned to rioting. He finally agreed to abdicate in favour of his son, Baudouin, in July 1951.

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