Posted on June 14, 2010

Belgium Divide Deepens After Flemish Separatists Win Election

Jenny Percival, Guardian (London), June 14, 2010

A rightwing 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 (NVA) 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.