Flemish separatists win Belgian election

A right wing separatist party that
wants independence for the Dutch-speaking region of northern Belgium has won a shock victory in
the country’s general election.

The New Flemish Alliance is on
course to become the largest party in parliament – the first time in Belgium’s
180-year history that a Flemish nationalist party has gained more seats than
the traditional federalist parties.

Early results suggest the NVA
scored a record 29% of the vote in Dutch-speaking Flanders, while the
French-speaking Socialists got the largest share of the vote – 36% – in Wallonia which has fewer voters.

Coalition

Talks underway today on forming a
coalition are likely to force the NVA to tone down its nationalist rhetoric but
the party’s victory could lead to greater autonomy for Dutch and French speaking
regions. King Albert, as head of state, was holding one-on-one meetings with
political leaders.

As many as eight parties could make
up the new government. In 2007, those talks lasted more than six months.

There are fears that protracted
negotiations and the formation of a potentially unstable, high-spending
coalition could upset the markets. The country’s ratio of debt to gross
domestic product is behind only Greece
and Italy
in the eurozone.

Presidency

Belgium
is also preparing to take over the presidency of the European Union in July.

Divisions between the 6.5 million
Dutch speakers in Flanders and the 4 million French speakers in Wallonia in the poorer south of the country have caused
decades of disputes which permeate every aspect of Belgian society: there are
separate language sections of almost every organisation from Scouts and
charities, such as the Red Cross, to national political parties.

The NVA’s victory on Sunday, winning
27 seats in the 150-member assembly, up 19 from the 2007 elections, was a shock
to the Belgian political world.

Voters rejected prime minister Yves
Leterme’s outgoing coalition of Christian Democrats, Liberals and Socialists –
each split into French and Dutch speaking sections – whose three years in power
were marked by linguistic spats that remained unresolved.

The election outcome was seen as a
warning to French-speaking politicians to negotiate seriously about granting
Dutch and French-speakers more self-rule, or Dutch-speaking Flanders
would seek independence.

New king

The Francophone daily Le Soir said
“Flanders has chosen a new king”, referring to
Bart de Wever, 39, the NVA leader and a potential new Belgian prime minister,
who urged “Francophones to make (a country) that works”.

De Wever seeks an orderly breakup
of Belgium.
His party accuses French-speaking Wallonia of poor governance that has raised
the unemployment rate to double that of Flanders.
In Wallonia the Socialists, traditionally a dominant
force in the south, did well – winning 26 seats, up six from 2007.

Party leader, Elio di Rupo, another
candidate to be prime minister, said: “Many Flemish people want the country’s
institutions reformed. We need to listen to that.”

Flanders and Wallonia
already have autonomy in urban development, environment, agriculture, employment,
energy, culture, sports and other areas.

Flemish parties demand that
justice, health and social security are added to that, but Walloon politicians
fear ending social security as a federal responsibility will mark the end of Belgium.

The divide goes beyond language. Flanders is conservative and free-trade minded. Wallonia’s long-dominant Socialists have a record of
corruption and poor governance. Flanders has half the unemployment of Wallonia and a 25% higher per-capita income, and its
politicians say they are tired of subsidising their French-speaking neighbours.

Crisis

As governments worldwide tried to
tame a financial crisis and recession, the four parties that led Belgium since 2007 struggled with linguistic
spats, most notably over a bilingual voting district comprising the capital, Brussels, and 35 Flemish
towns bordering it.

The high court ruled it illegal in
2003 because Dutch is the only official language in Flanders.
Over the years, Francophones from Brussels
have moved in large numbers to the city’s leafy Flemish suburbs, where they are
accused of refusing to learn Dutch and integrate.

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French-speaking Walloons may be separated from the Dutch Flemish.
Photo: File