Early Belgian election results show Flemish separatist gains
Early results from Belgium's general election Sunday showed the Flemish separatist NVA party enjoying unprecedented support, heightening fears of a move towards splitting the nation.
The first results from Dutch-speaking Flanders, Belgium's richer north, showed the NVA, led by 39-year-old Bart De Wever, winning between 23 percent and 32 percent of the Flemish vote.
If those kind of figures are reflected throughout Flanders, the separatists would become the biggest party in the region, raising francophone fears of moves to a split and making the formation of any coalition government very difficult.
Belgium, which already has devolved governments for the richer Dutch-speaking Flemish north and the worse off French-speaking Wallonia region to the south has seen more and more powers gradually handed to the regions from the federal authorities.
The NVA's breakthrough appears to be at the expense of the Flemish Christian Democrats led by Belgium's outgoing premier Yves Leterme which, according to the early results, is losing support from the last general election in 2007.
As the results trickled in, fears were growing that the country's political crisis, which has led to four governments and three prime ministers since the last election, is just about to get worse.
The electoral win for the NVA (New Flemish Alliance) "if confirmed would be immense, more than doubling their score," from the last elections in 2007, said former Flemish socialist head Steve Stevaert.
Among the French-speaking voters the socialists made a good start, with the private RTL-TVI television putting the PS socialist party in front both in Wallonia and the Brussels capital region, the only officially bilingual part of Belgium.
The early elections were called after the previous five-party coalition, led by Leterme, broke up in April over the communal differences.
Despite the tensions, the local Belga news agency reported no untoward incidents at polling stations.
However, at one of the flashpoint Flemish suburbs of Brussels a group of 20 protesters brandished banners calling for "a Flemish president" just as EU president and former Belgian prime minister Herman Van Rompuy arrived to cast his vote.
An electoral breakthrough by the Flemish separatists could lead to lengthy political horse-trading before any stable coalition government can be formed.
That leaves the prospect of Belgium, which prides itself on hosting the European Union's headquarters, assuming the rotating EU presidency next month without a fully functioning government itself.
De Wever, who says he is not interested in a 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 their Walloon leader Elio Di Rupo picking up the reins.
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.
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.
Leterme's administration is set to remain in charge of day-to-day affairs for as long as it takes to form a new government.
© 2010 AFP