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Belgium begins hard task of post-election coalition building

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Brussels (AFP)

Belgium on Monday launched the daunting process of forging a new coalition government after elections deepened the split between the Dutch speakers in the north and French speakers in the south.

King Philippe of Belgium consulted various party leaders about prospects for a new coalition and asked outgoing Prime Minister Charles Michel to manage affairs for the time being.

The ruling coalition collapsed five months ago and left Michel, the French-speaking liberal in charge of a caretaker administration.

Northern Flanders has tilted even further right with the secessionist Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) party making strong gains while the socialists in southern Wallonia have retained top position.

Michel had kept Vlaams Belang out of his own coalition.

Economically booming Flanders votes traditionally to the right, while the socialists are the major political force in Brussels and post-industrial Wallonia, where unemployment is high.

"It's a historical fact," Belgian political scientist Vincent Laborderie told AFP when asked about a north that traditionally leans right and a south that leans left.

But until now parties at opposite ends of the spectrum have never done so well, with the far-right Vlaams Belang taking 18 seats in the 150-seat parliament and the far-left PTB 12.

Other groups like the VB and the PTB Workers Party of Belgium -- to say nothing of the environmentalist Ecolo-Groen that increased its share from 12 to 21 seats -- gained ground at the expense of the traditional parties.

The socialists, Christian Democrats and liberals all emerged weaker from the elections to the federal parliament, the regional assemblies and the European Parliament.

In theory, a moderate axis involving the socialists (29 deputies), liberals (26) and ecologists (21) could form a majority of 76 members.

Such a rainbow coalition has existed in the past, but there may be a problem of balance beyond potentially difficult compromises on tax policy.

A rainbow coalition would depend on minority Dutch-speaking parties and would sweep aside a pledge by the Flemish nationalist N-VA to retain a central national role.

The N-VA remained Sunday the leading political force in Flanders, with 25 seats in the assembly.

- 'Treating us like semi-Nazis' -

N-VA President Bart De Wever, one of the party leaders who met Monday with the king, has ruled any government that will not rest on a majority of Flemish voters.

But it is not clear whether the French-speaking left and the Flemish right can find a way to work together.

"How am I supposed to work with people who wear us out by treating us like semi Nazis?" De Wever said, referring to accusations of xenophobia.

Belgium took a record 541 days to form a government in 2010 and 2011 amid deep divisions between the Dutch speakers in Flanders and francophones in Wallonia and Brussels.

A number of political scientists like Marc Uyttendaele told AFP, however, they do not expect the deadlock to last as long this time.

It is up to King Philippe, they said, to ease the north-south divide by mediating the negotiations between the party leaders.

Some commentators accused several N-VA leaders of having played into Vlaams Belang's right-wing agenda by hardening the rhetoric during Europe's migration crisis in 2015.

"People prefer the original to the copy," a former Socialist minister said.

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