Separatist party wins big in Belgian election
BRUSSELS — Voters gave a stunning win in general elections to a Flemish separatist party that wants Dutch and French-speakers to end years of acrimonious linguistic disputes — or go their own way and break up Belgium.
The New Flemish Alliance on Sunday shook up Belgium's hidebound political scene, winning 27 seats, up 19 from the 2007 elections, to become Belgium's biggest party.
Its win was a withering report card on Premier Yves Leterme's outgoing coalition of Christian Democrats, Liberals and Socialists — split into Dutch- and French-speaking factions — whose three years in office were marked by enduring linguistic spats that remained unresolved.
The election outcome was seen as a warning to Francophone politicians to negotiate seriously about granting Dutch- and French-speakers more self-rule, or Dutch-speaking Flanders will bolt.
The reaction in Wallonia was one of shock.
The daily Le Soir said "Flanders has chosen a new king," referring to Bart De Wever, 39, leader of the New Flemish Alliance who urged "Francophones to make (a country) that works."
Belgium's 6.5 million Dutch-speakers and 4 million Francophones live very side by side lives.
Just about everything here — from political parties to broadcasters to boy scouts and voting ballots — already comes in Dutch- and French-speaking versions. Even charities such as the Red Cross and Amnesty International have separate chapters.
De Wever seeks an orderly breakup of Belgium. His party accuses Wallonia, Belgium's poorer Southern half, of bad governance that has raised the jobless rate to double that of Flanders, the Dutch-speaking north.
On Monday, King Albert is expected to start one-on-one meetings with political leaders to see who should form a new government. In 2007, those talks lasted more than six months.
If he becomes premier of Belgium, De Wever will head a coalition government which will force him to tone down his independence talk and negotiate for more regional self rule within Belgium.
These talks have been stalemated for years.
True to tradition, the big winners in Wallonia were the Socialists who won 26 seats, up six. Their leader, Elio di Rupo, also a would-be premier, 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 percent higher per-capita income, and its politicians are tired of subsidizing their Francophone neighbors.
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 Brussels' leafy Flemish suburbs, where they are accused of refusing to learn Dutch and integrate.