BRUSSELS: Language-divided Belgium heads for elections May 25 with its Dutch-speaking separatists expected to top the vote, raising fears of a remake of the 2010-2011 mayhem that left the nation without a government for 541 days.
“The key to what happens the next day will be the score garnered by the N-VA”, said Belgian political journalist Frederic Chardon of La Libre newspaper, referring to the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) separatist party.
The latest polls show the N-VA headed by bullish Antwerp mayor Bart De Wever leading the pack at the election with 32 percent of the vote in northern Flanders, up four points on his 2010 results.
Top of the pack in the French-speaking south with 30 percent is the Socialist party led by Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, Belgium’s first francophone premier in more than three decades and the first Socialist at the helm since 1974. But with neither party set to command a majority, as election day looms mainstream parties opposed to a break-up of Belgium are rejecting, one after the other, any idea of signing up to a separatist-led N-VA coalition.
It has been two and a half years since Belgium’s world-record political deadlock ended with the swearing in of Di Rupo’s government, comprising three parties from Dutch-speaking northern Flanders and three from the French south.
Its unlikely mix of left, right and centre politicians brought Belgium back from the brink after an embarrassing Standard & Poor’s downgrade and whopping debt of 96 percent of GDP, just behind Greece and Italy in the eurozone.
Known as the “bow-tie coalition” because of the premier’s necktie fetish, the government has since sliced the budget by 22 billion euros — a huge sum when compared to the 50-billion-euro cuts currently on the table in neighbouring France, with a population almost six times that of Belgium. Despite the belt-tightening, the six-party coalition has largely stuck to social-minded policies, avoiding the drastic austerity in vogue elsewhere in Europe, while managing to keep internal differences largely out of public view. But gloom over the economic crisis has taken its toll on the ruling coalition.
And in recent months, tough-talking Antwerp mayor De Wever has put talk of independence for Flanders on the back-burner, campaigning instead on a liberal anti-Socialist platform of tax cuts and caps on unemployment benefits. “If they make a strong electoral showing, however, I think they’ll bring the (Flemish) nationalist question up again after the vote,” political scientist Dave Sinardet said in a recent debate.
With joblessness twice as high in the more down-at-heels south than in Flanders, the 6.5 million Flemish resent funding Wallonia’s 4.5 million people in much the same way that prosperous Germany sees Greece.
But the separatists face the spectre of a Pyrrhic victory.
“Even the most powerful party can be faced with an alliance of smaller ones bent on keeping their grip on power,” warned Het Laatste Nieuws, the most popular daily in Flanders, where the regional premier Kris Peeters is fighting to keep his centre-right CD&V party in office.
Failing an outright winner, the custom is for the Belgian king to ask the leading contender to form a federal coalition.
In 2010-2011 the process lasted 18 months as parties from left and right and both Flanders and Wallonia failed to find a common stand.
“If we join a federal majority, it would be without the N-VA”, said Foreign Minister Didier Reynders, whose large and popular centre-right liberal MR party is in the ruling coalition but is campaigning against Di Rupo and his Socialist policies. De Wever hit back, saying Reynders “in fact is telling Flemish voters that ‘your democracy doesn’t count’”.
Throwing off his premier’s mantle recently to go into the election ring, Di Rupo blasted De Wever’s separatists as a perpetually sterile opposition, comparing them to “eunuchs in a harem” who “know how and where to do it but can’t do it yourselves”.
Polls show the N-VA winning 33 seats in the 150-member federal parliament against a current 27. There is no national ticket in Belgium, with each of the Flemish, French and German-speaking regions voting for separate lists, with bilingual Brussels the only region to offer voters the possibility of either a Flemish or a Wallonian list.
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