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Belgium heads to crucial polls amid fears of split

Belgian voters go to the polls Sunday with Flemish nationalists in the ascendant and fuelling fears of a move towards a split along the country’s Franco-Dutch linguistic faultline.

Much hangs on how many cast in the Dutch-speaking majority cast their votes on Sunday for the independence advocates such as the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) led by Bart de Wever.

The pre-vote polls show the N-VA 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.

However the undecided rate is also high and, with voting obligatory, nothing is decided. Nonetheless the opinion polls are enough to increase the concerns in the poorer French-speaking region of Wallonia to the south.

“The N-VA could become the biggest party in the Belgian parliament” and “given its manifesto that will make it very complicated” to form a new government which must be a coalition of Flemish and francophone parties, said political analyst Pierre Vercauteren.

While plenty of political horse-trading can be expected after the results become known, Belgium, proud of its key role in hosting the European Union’s main institutions, will be hoping to present a semblance of normality and leadership when it assumes the EU’s rotating presidency on July 1.

With their fellow independence-minded parties, including the extreme right Vlaams Belang, (Flemish Interests), the nationalists could represent 40 percent of the Flemish electorate.

The 39-year-old De Wever, who says he is not interested in the national top job, doesn’t 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 authirties 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 Walloon Elio Di Rupo picking up the reins.

After a string of Flemish premiers have failed to forge a viable solution, many north of the capital may be open to someone from the francophone community having a go at the top job while under pressure to deliver a durable solution.

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 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.

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 was nine months before Leterme managed to put an administration together.

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.

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.

The first election results will be delivered at around 1530 GMT on Sunday.