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Belgium to vote in crucial regional polls

Published on 03/06/2009

BRUSSELS - Some 7.7 million Belgians, who are obliged by law to vote or face a fine, are being called to elect parliaments in Dutch-speaking Flanders, French-speaking Wallonia and bilingual Brussels for five years.

An assembly will also be chosen for the small German language minority.

While the stakes are high for the parties concerned, these elections risk weakening the federal government, which was only formed in January and remains shaky two years after the last national polls.

The weak underbelly of federal politics has been persistent Flemish demands for more power to be devolved to the regions, which French-speakers reject, giving them more autonomy and vastly complicating efforts to build a cabinet.

Christian Democrat Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy wants to see out his term in 2011 at the head of the current coalition, made up of three francophone parties and two from Flanders, the relatively rich region in northern Belgium.

Yet whether it be there, or in Wallonia to the south, the political landscape could change dramatically come June 7, the same day that European Parliament elections are being held in most countries across Europe.

In Wallonia, the Socialist Party is in great difficulty and could lose control of the industrial region of some 3.5 million inhabitants which has traditionally been its own.

After swearing to have turned the page on a number of political-financial scandals from the past, the party has failed to renew itself and has been caught up in even more in recent weeks.

The liberal party has taken advantage of the slip ups to campaign hard against the socialists, and it will probably fall to the greens party Ecolo — forecast to win around 20 percent — to play kingmaker between the two.

The party that loses could decide to join the opposition at federal level as well, which would deprive Van Rompuy of his majority.

In Flanders, the political landscape is even more fragmented because only the Christian Democrat CDV is likely to pass the 20 percent mark.

The far-right appears to be losing ground, but the populist "Lijst Dedecker" or the nationals of the New Flemish Alliance (NVA) could steal territory from the socialists and join forces with the CDV or the liberals.

If any of the changes in the regions lead to early general elections, as more and more of the Belgian media thinks might happen, Flanders is bound to renew its demands for more autonomy.

However the current cabinet was only put in place when this thorny issue and the implications of it were put aside in the interests of having a government that could at least conduct day-to-day business.

While the problem has not been a focus of campaigning, the intercommunal tensions were highlighted recently when Flemish nationalists stopped people putting up French-language election posters in a flash-point suburb close to Brussels.

Under those kinds of conditions, the resumption of dialogue between Belgium’s French and Dutch-speaking communities could prove impossible and once again threaten the break-up of the kingdom.
Philippe Siuberski