Belgium votes with Flemish nationalists in pole position
Belgium goes to the polls on Sunday for a snap general election amid fears that growing support for Flemish radicals could push the country further towards a north-south split.
Many politicians and observers see the election as vital to the country's future, with much hanging on how many of the Dutch-speaking majority vote for the independence advocates of the New Flemish Alliance (NVA).
Just days ahead of the elections NVA leader Bart de Wever was in buoyant mood. According to the opinion polls he is set to beat outgoing premier Yves Leterme's more moderate Christian Democrats to become the biggest party in the wealthy Flemish north, with some 25 percent of the vote.
Such a seismic shift would not be enough alone to bring the whole edifice of Belgium crumbling down: there could yet be the first francophone premier since the 1970s, with socialist party leader Elio di Rupo out in front in the poorer French-speaking Wallonia to the south.
However it would sound very loud alarm bells that the two communities, which have lived side by side in devolved partnership for decades, are growing apart.
De Wever, who says he is not interested in the national top job, doesn't see himself as a revolutionary.
He believes the country, formed in 1830, will "slowly but surely, very gently disappear," as powers are devolved further to the regions and to the European Union.
What is inevitable in a country with no national political parties, is a coalition government comprising parties from both communities.
Rainer Guntermann, analyst for Germany's Commerzbank, sees increased political tensions in a country which has gone through three prime ministers, including one twice, since the last general election in 2007.
"The new elections that take place this weekend after the recent collapse of the government are unlikely to bring political stability quickly," he said.
The daily Le Soir is already seeing the effects, proclaiming that "Fear of separatism paralyses the nation."
The split is along the country's linguistic faultline in a country where only the capital Brussels is officially bilingual.
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.
The political row, in flashpoint Brussels suburbs, has become emblematic of the wider problem.
On the wider issues, the wary francophone leaders are prepared to negotiate on devolving powers on employment and tax matters but have drawn a line in the sand when it comes to the national social security system.
Nor do they accept the unilateral liquidation of French speakers' "privileges" in the Brussels suburbs, saying the most they could accept would be an enlargement of the bilingual capital zone, something even the moderate Flemish deem unacceptable.
While the proportional representation system makes a coalition government inevitable, no one knows how long it will take to put an administration together: after the last elections it took Leterme nine months.
He was then forced out of office in December 2008 amid a banking bailout scandal, before boomeranging back last November after his successor Herman Van Rompuy stood down to become the EU's first council president.
While plenty of political horse-trading can be expected after the results become known, Belgium 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.
© 2010 AFP