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Belgians go to polls on Sunday

7 June 2007

BRUSSELS (AFP) – Belgian voters go to the polls Sunday with Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt facing almost-certain defeat and with sharp divisions between Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia.

There is no national party which has candidates in both Flanders and Wallonia meaning that any Belgian government must therefore be an uneasy coalition of Dutch and French speakers. According to the latest opinion polls the Flemish Christian Democrats could be the ones seeking to forge that alliance.

It is a foregone conclusion that the next prime minister will be Flemish. The last francophone PM, Paul Vanden Boeynants, served for just six month in 1978-79 in a transition government.

Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt’s party — the Flemish Liberal Democrats (VLD) — standing fourth among Flanders voters with 17.3 percent of voting intentions according to a recent poll — looks unlikely to secure a third term.

The Flemish Christian Democrat alliance, led by Yves Leterme, 46-year-old leader of the Dutch-speaking Flemish region, garnered around 30 percent support in the same media poll.

Notably, Verhofstadt’s pronouncements are the more moderate and unitarian. Leterme has, in the past, questioned the francophones’ “intellectual capacity” to learn Dutch.

The francophone Socialists were also commanding around 30 percent of the vote in their region, according to the opinion poll.

Local media have been exploring the possible coalitions which may emerge from the lengthy political horse-trading expected to follow Sunday’s vote.

The Franco-Dutch divide was amply highlighted last December when a state television channel announced, in a spoof programme, that the Flemish region had declared independence and that the kingdom of Belgium was no more.

To back up the report during prime time evening viewing, RTBF showed “live” footage of trams blocked at the new “border” and interviewed real-life politicians welcoming or denouncing the unilateral move of independence by the Flemish parliament.

“Belgium Died Last Night” screamed Le Soir newspaper, while the daily Libre Belgique headlined: “The Fiction that Shook Belgium.”

Around six million of Belgium’s 10.4 million people live in the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders with 3.5 million in Wallonia and one million in largely francophone Brussels.

Parties in Flanders, the wealthiest part of the country, are demanding wider political powers, and notably want to manage their own employment policy, which is currently in the hands of the federal government.

“I think that the risk of Belgium breaking up exists, but not in the short- or medium-term,” said political science lecturer Pierre Vercauteren.

“If it happens one day I think it will be like with a married couple who, not understanding each other enough, finish up by having nothing to say to each other and separation becomes inevitable,” he added.

The Flemish region remains troubled by painful memories from the 19th century when the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, who spoke French whether they were from Wallonia or Flanders, held sway.

Leterme, who champions reform of Belgium’s institutions to give more power to Flanders, appears in a strong position to seize the PM’s post, with the Flemish populace making up 60 percent of the national electorate.

The extreme-right Vlaams Belang, which is seeking a formal split between the two linguistic areas of Belgium, is also heading for an impressive result with some 22 percent in the polls.

The francophone parties, including the liberal Reform Movement of Finance Minister Didier Reynders and Elio Di Rupo’s Socialist Party, oppose state reforms, fearing they would only lead to a reduction in power and influence.

The Socialists have a narrow lead over their main rivals in the opinion polls, despite a series of financial scandals in Walloon towns.

[Copyright AFP 2007]

Subject: Belgian news