Flemish separatists demand re-drawn Belgium after poll win
Flemish separatists scored an unprecedented victory in Belgium's general election on Sunday and demanded a re-drawn federal state in negotiations to form a government.
To supporters' cries of "Long Live a Free Flanders," New Flemish Alliance leader Bart de Wever, 39, declared his NVA party winners and told French-speaking voters: "Don't be afraid. Have faith in yourselves."
De Wever ultimately wants independence, and his party triggered a political earthquake by winning the largest share of the vote -- 29.1 percent based on almost three quarters of official returns in Dutch-speaking Flanders.
Media projections showed they would pick up between 28 and 30 seats in the 150-member lower house, becoming the kingdom's biggest individual party.
It was, de Wever said, an "extraordinary" result, and he wasted no time in calling for sweeping reform -- although he expressed a need to "assume our responsibilities" during horse-trading equally centred on Belgium's parlous public finances.
Stressing that Flemish nationalists had to "extend a hand to francophones" to find a "structure that functions," de Wever underlined that "we need to change the state together."
He has allies in his quest for fiscal or full independence, with the far-right Vlaams Belang scoring 12.5 percent, and the separatist De Decker list expecting to pick up about 3.7 percent.
"The challenge is enormous (but) the Flemish people have chosen change and we won't let them down," de Wever said.
He underlined that he will stand aside during talks seeking to nominate a new Belgian prime minister to replace current caretaker Yves Leterme, whose Christian Democrats trailed on just 18.4 percent.
"The job of prime minister for me is not important, the key is to get a deal. If it helps the francophones to trust us, I'm happy to make that sacrifice," he said.
The favourite to be named prime minister is francophone Socialist leader Elio di Rupo, who said his party had claimed a "fantastic success" in parallel but distinct elections in French-speaking Wallonia and the bilingual Brussels.
The Socialists scored 33.8 percent of the vote across the other two federal regions, based on just over three quarters of official returns.
Di Rupo said his party had a "considerable responsibility at a historic moment" for Belgium, observing that the wealthier Flemish majority had "manifestly" voted in large numbers for "institutional change."
He said he would push for "a reform of the state that would guarantee greater prosperity for Walloons, the people of Brussels and Flanders."
Collectively, Walloon leaders are expected to seek guarantees that the shared Belgian welfare state -- many Flemish complain that they subsidise their southern Walloon neighbours -- will be retained.
Didier Reynders, the outgoing francophone Belgian finance minister, accepted defeat but urged both Flemish and Walloons to come together "to stabilise this country."
"There is a very serious constitutional crisis... but also a financial crisis" that must be addressed, making things "problematic for the country."
A country of 10.5 million people, 60 percent Flemish, Belgium -- which hosts the headquarters of the European Union and NATO -- already has heavily devolved regional governments, divided along linguistic lines themselves anchored in a financial gulf.
It has had four governments and three prime ministers since its last general election.
Leterme's administration will remain in charge of day-to-day affairs until negotiations, which could prove lengthy, are wrapped up -- and he is fully expected to be still in office when Belgium assumes the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union next month.
© 2010 AFP