Flemish nationalists triumph in Belgium

De Wever Picnik.jpg

The N-VA, a nationalist party, secured a sweeping victory in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium in national elections held on Sunday (13 June), paving the way for more powers to be delegated to the regions in the country that hosts the EU institutions.

The New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) and their leader Bart de Wever celebrated an historic victory in the poll, winning around 30% of the vote in the northern, Dutch-speaking part of the country, well ahead of the ruling Christian Democrats.

Flemish nationalist gains were matched by a large victory for the socialists in French-speaking south Wallonia, with both parties now expected to spearhead government coalition talks.

According to Interior Ministry projections, the N-VA will have 27 seats in the lower house of parliament, one more than the French-speaking socialists (Parti Socialiste; PS).

But together with the Flemish socialists, the PS is the largest political family in parliament, meaning PS leader Elio Di Rupo could become the next prime minister. 

The complex nature of Belgian politics means coalition talks usually take months, with September cited as a possible date for a new government to take office.

Calls for more regionalism

De Wever's victory in the wealthier north is widely seen as a sign of exasperation among the the Flemish, who have been calling for more powers to be delegated to the regions for years – calls which thus far have always been rejected by the French-speaking parties.

In poorer Wallonia, financial transfers from richer Flanders are seen as tantamount to maintaining the country's unity and solidarity.

At the centre of disagreements is the future of the Belgian capital, Brussels, which is dominated by French-speakers and enjoys bilingual status despite being geographically situated in Flanders.

Celebrating his victory on Sunday, de Wever firmly put reform of the Belgian state back on the agenda. "We are writing history here," he said. "For those with a will, nothing is impossible."

De Wever then sought to reassure the francophone community amid fears that his victory could mark a step towards confederalism and eventually lead to a split of the country.

"This is not the end of the country, this is an evolution," de Wever said. "The country is splitting itself into two whole democracies".

However, de Wever will be unable to pursue his agenda without compromising with other parties, both in the north and south of the country. "70% of Flemish voters have not voted for us," de Wever reminded his supporters on Sunday.

"There will be bridges to be constructed. And we hope that everyone will be able to hold their responsibilities."

"I extend my hand to the francophones. Nobody has an interest in blocking the country. We must dare to go forward."

Bart de Wever made his speech against a giant representation of the European flag with yellow stars on a blue background, a move apparently aimed at reassuring Belgium's EU partners that the country will live up to its pro-European reputation.

But the nationalistic imagery was subtly present as one of the yellow stars, which are supposed to represent the EU's member countries, was replaced with a yellow lion, the national symbol of Flanders.

Socialists may hold the key

In French-speaking Wallonia, the socialists also celebrated their victory, noting their "spectacular success". "Our responsibility is proportionate to the results: considerable," said Walloon socialist leader Elio di Rupo in a short text published on Twitter.

"I hope the women and men who will be called to negotiate and form a government for our country will very quickly demonstrate a genuine will to arrive at a balanced compromise."

Together with the Flemish socialists, the PS (Parti Socialiste) could form the largest group in parliament, meaning PS leader di Rupo could become the next prime minister. "Tonight, after 20 years, the socialists have again become the first political family in Belgium," di Rupo said.

The initiative could well be with di Rupo, who may be tempted to propose an alliance with his socialist colleagues in the north in a bid to grab the prime minister's seat.

Di Rupo may even find an unlikely ally in Bart de Wever, who said during the campaign that he was open to seeing di Rupo take the position of prime minister. De Wever is not particularly keen on becoming prime minister because his party is deeply regionalist and does not believe in a federal Belgium.

Future of Brussels hangs in the balance

To complicate matters further, liberal reformist party MR, which has adopted a hard-line stance in defending the rights of French-speakers, maintained its leading position in Brussels, setting the scene for a clash with the Flemish nationalists.

In some municipalities around Brussels, the French-speaking population enjoy special privileges like being able to receive administrative documents in their native language, a situation which has exasperated parts of the Flemish population.

The immediate next step is for the king to appoint an "informer" who will be tasked with sounding out political party leaders and identifying a prime ministerial candidate to lead government coalition talks.

Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme tendered his resignation in April after a Flemish party decided to leave the government coalition over a dispute between French- and Dutch-speaking parties over electoral boundaries surrounding the capital, Brussels (EURACTIV 27/04/10).

The monarch asked Leterme, 49, to stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new government is formed.

National elections were held on 13 June, but it is highly unlikely that a new government can be formed before the country assumes the rotating EU presidency, which starts on 1 July 2010 for a period of six months.

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