Belgium votes amid fears of a national split
Belgian voters went to the polls for legislative elections Sunday with the strength of Flemish separatist parties hiking concerns of moves towards splitting the country along its linguistic faultline.
The independence-minded NVA led by 39-year-old Bart De Wever can expect some 25 percent of the vote in Belgium's richer, Dutch-speaking region of Flanders in the north of the country, according to the pre-vote polls,
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.
In French-speaking Wallonia, the socialists were the pre-vote favourites with opinion polls giving them at least 30 percent of the vote there.
"A turning point for Belgium," opined the Derniere Heure daily.
Inside an advert for a new 'A Team' action film was headed jokingly "The only team that could still save Belgium!"
The two communities could 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.
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 snap elections were made necessary when the previous five-party coalition of Flemish Christian Democrat Yves Leterme crumbled in April over special right afforded to the francophone minority in Flemish suburbs of Brussels.
There have been three prime ministers and four governments since the last general election, with the two main communities consistently failing to agree on the further decentralisation of federal powers, amid very differing economic interests.
De Wever, who says he is not interested in the national top job, does not see himself as a revolutionary.
He believes the country, where the regions are already devolved, will "slowly but surely, very gently disappear," as more powers ebb away from the federal authorities and to the European Union.
Paradoxically the breakthrough of the Flemish separatists could open the way for Belgium's first francophone premier since the 1970s, with the socialists emerging as the biggest political 'family' in the country and Walloon Elio Di Rupo picking up the reins.
After a string of Flemish premiers have failed to forge a viable solution, many north of the capital may be ready to see someone from the francophone community having a go at the top job under pressure to deliver a durable solution.
The Walloon leaders could show more flexibility as far as allowing further autonomy for the Flemish is concerned in return for guarantees that the Belgian welfare state, and its financing, will continue.
The complex situation is given further uncertainty by the large amount of voters who, according to the opinion polls, have yet to decide who to vote for.
The outgoing prime minister Yves Leterme's five-party coalition government imploded in April after a Flemish liberal party walked out, frustrated at the lack of progress in talks aimed at clipping special rights accorded to francophone residents in Flanders.
Leterme's administration is set to remain in charge of day-today affairs for as long as it takes to form a new coalition. Last time it took six months.
The polling stations will close at 3:00 pm (1300 GMT) with the first results expected within three hours.
© 2010 AFP