Belgian voters go to the polls with country's unity at stake

13th June 2010, Comments 0 comments

Belgians vote in a general election Sunday with opinion polls predicting the kind of impressive showing for Flemish nationalists which would send fears of a national break up soaring.

Pre-election opinion polls put the independentist NVA party in front in the the richer northern region Dutch-speaking Flanders, with a quarter of the vote.

Add fellow separatist groups and the vote regionally stacks up at 40 percent, the kind of figure to send shivers down the spines of federalist politicians in the poorer French-speaking region of Wallonia to the south.

The two communities could then have more than the usual problems in forming a coalition government in a country where only the Brussels capital region is officially bilingual.

It took months after the last legislative elections in 2007 for a government to emerge. Analysts fear any duplication could lead to further radicalisation and bring the spectre of an eventual split into stark focus.

The extreme form of regional emancipation sought by the NVA would leave the Belgian state looking after defence and foreign affairs pending full independence.

Bart De Wever, the 39-year-old NVA leader, says he is not interested in the national top job and doesn't see himself as a revolutionary.

He believes the country, where the regions already have their own governments, will "slowly but surely, very gently disappear," as more powers ebb away from the federal authorities and to the European Union.

The early elections were called after former prime minister Yves Leterme's five-party coalition imploded in April amid a row over voting rights for francophones in Flemish areas.

De Wever's high showing in the polls follows three years of political deadlock since the last election, during which Belgium has had four prime ministers, including Leterme twice.

Plenty of political horse-trading can be expected after the results become known.

But Belgium, proud of its key role in hosting the European Union's main institutions, will be hoping to present a semblance of normality and leadership when it assumes the EU's rotating presidency on July 1.

Leterme's outgoing cabinet will have to deal with day-to-day affairs if there is no new team in place by the time founding European Union member Belgium takes up the reins.

Voting is obligatory for the 150 parliamentary seats in the country of 10.5 million people, 60 percent Flemish, where no political party operates nationally.

The polling stations close at 3:00 pm (1300 GMT) with the first results expected within three hours.

© 2010 AFP

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