Flemish separatists clean up in legislative elections
The nationalist N-VA, led by Bart de Wever, has taken the lead in Belgium's parliamentary elections, worrying French-speaking Wallonia. The N-VA advocates Belgium's eventual dissolution, with Flanders and Wallonia going their separate ways.
The Flemish nationalist party N-VA (New Flemish Alliance), which wants to split Belgium between its Flemish north and French-speaking south, triumphed in Sunday’s parliamentary elections although they fell short of achieving an absolute majority in parliament.
Belgium needs to deliver austerity measures to counter rising national debt - a contentious issue that will not be helped by the inevitable political horse-trading as parties try to form a working coalition in the weeks and months ahead.
The N-VA (New Flemish Alliance) was the strongest party in the Flanders region of northern Belgium, where Flemish, which is similar to Dutch, is spoken. The N-VA advocates Belgium's step-by-step dissolution, with Flanders and Wallonia going their separate ways.
The result comes ahead of Belgium taking over the EU’s rotating presidency in July, and follows the resignation of former Prime Minister Yves Leterme in April over complications surrounding the bilingual electoral unit surrounding the Brussels area.
The party won more votes overall than the French-speaking Socialists (PS) secured in separate voting in southern, French-speaking Wallonia.
"The N-VA has won the election today," its leader Bart De Wever, 39, told cheering, flag-waving supporters who burst into a rendition of the Flemish national anthem.
The party won 27 seats in the country’s lower house of parliament, one more than the PS. But together with the Flemish socialists, the PS could form the largest group in parliament, meaning PS leader Elio Di Rupo could become the next prime minister.
While De Wever is reluctant to be leader of a united Belgium, he has said he is open to the idea of a first French-speaking premier since 1974 if that would bring more powers to Flanders.
"You don't have to like each other to work together," he said.
Bulldozing the south into obscurity
The N-VA's lead in polls triggered a nationwide debate about the possible break-up of the 180-year-old nation, with richer Flanders splitting from Wallonia, where unemployment is about double the national average.
Much of public and political life in Belgium is dominated by arguments over language and public spending, where higher spending in poorer Wallonia, home to four million French speakers, has caused resentment among Belgium's 6.5 million Flemish majority.
Parties from Wallonia see devolution as a step towards Belgium's break-up, which they oppose, but all have said they would consider some reform of the state.
Francophone Belgian author Patrick Roegiers, who has written a biography of the country entitled Le Mal du Pays (The suffering of the country), told FRANCE 24 that Flemish ambitions to independence, if realised, risked bulldozing the French-speaking south into total obscurity.
“Flanders is in a historic position of strength,” he said. “And despite de Wever’s obvious intelligence, he is nevertheless a very dangerous populist. Flanders is now like a rugby team that has all the momentum and is completely dominating its opposition."
And Roegiers warns that Wallonia risks being completely marginalised. "Wallonia will be nothing if Flanders gets its independence," he said. "Flanders wants to become a republic within Europe. And if they do, Wallonia will just become a forgotten European district.”