Flemish separatists prepare to shake Belgium up at polls
First confederalism, then independence, that's the main manifesto plank of the Flemish nationalists who look set to become the biggest party in Flanders at the general election on Sunday.
Last Sunday some 1,500 militants from the "nationalist and democratic" New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) held their last pre-election meeting in the velour seats of a theatre in central Ghent, the capital of East Flanders in Belgium's Dutch-speaking northern region.
Just days ahead of the elections they were in buoyant mood. The latest polls see their group coming out on top in Flanders with 26 percent of the popular vote.
Such a level of support for a party which openly advocates splitting from the poorer, French-speaking region of Wallonia to the south would be unprecedented.
In the theatre, yellow flags sporting a rampant black lion -- the flag of Flanders -- were hoisted next to the EU flag.
The black, yellow and red stripes of the Belgian flag were notable by their absence.
"We haven't won yet, the Belgian establishment won't give us any presents," said Siegfried Bracke, a leading Flemish journalist who recently joined the N-VA ranks.
"We will hold a hand out to the francophones for a confederation project, but it is written in the stars that Flanders will be an independent state in Europe," he added.
"I hope it's the end of Belgium, because I'm fed up at just being a Flemish person in Belgium," said retired Auguste Smeyers who had come to cheer on N-VA president Bart De Wever and his cohorts.
There are no political parties operating nationally in Belgium, guaranteeing that a coalition government will replace the outgoing coalition following the general election.
The country is split along its linguistic faultline, with only the Brussels capital region officially bi-lingual.
The francophone parties were incensed by De Wever's splittist rhetoric.
Head of the francophone centrists, Joelle Milquet, said the N-VA must be opposed to avoid the split up of Belgium and the "annexation of Brussels to Flanders".
Francophone liberal chief Didier Reynders charged that De Wever was "mistaking his dreams for reality."
At the last election in 2007 the N-VA, which was then in alliance with the Flemish Christian-Democrats, secured four percent of the vote in Flanders.
This time round its name is on all lips, as voters prepare to return to the urns following the implosion of the coalition of Yves Leterme's government in April.
The outgoing administration was, inevitably, toppled by incessant quarrelling between its Flemish and Walloon parties.
De Wever, 39, has managed to impose the "confederation" theme on the election campaign.
The idea is to transfer more and more federal powers to Flanders and Wallonia, a goal shared by almost all parties in Flanders but not in the french-speaking south.
In that scenario, the central government would be in charge only of defence and foreign affairs.
De Wever believes that the current federal system "has failed".
"The country is blocked. On the important issues, like immigration, the budget or judicial reform the Flemish and the francophones are no longer in synch," he old AFP.
De Wever said he doesn't want to become federal prime minister. His party will only join a new coalition government if the francophone partners also commit to the confederal path.
"What Bart De Wever wants so profoundly I want nothing to do with," francophone liberal leader Reynders has already warned.
"If he's a separatist that's his problem, but it will be without me," he added, paving the way for long months of fraught negotiations on the formation of the next Belgian government.
After the last election it took almost a year to put a coalition together.
© 2010 AFP