Separatists win, but Belgium tough to disentangle

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Is it time to wave bye to Belgium? Not yet, despite the spectacular gains in Sunday’s elections by separatists seeking independence for the country’s Dutch-speaking north.

The New Flemish Alliance (NVA) was the clear winner in the parliamentary election, taking 28 percent of the vote in the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders to become the country’s biggest party.

“We have been living in a gridlocked country, now it’s time for change,” declared the victorious NVA leader, Bart De Wever. “Everything is complicated in this country and the Flemish don’t want that any more.”

Despite their unprecedented success, the separatists have limited room to maneuver. Rather than a sudden breakup, Belgians can probably look forward to more of that political gridlock between French- and Dutch-speaking politicians.

With no partners in the French-speaking part of the country, which is deeply opposed to a breakup, De Wever will struggle to form a national government, leading to lengthy negotiations among the other parties to cobble together a coalition administration.

After the previous elections in 2007 it took nine months to form a government, and that was without the complication of having a leading party that wants to break up the nation.

“This time it’s going to difficult,” said veteran politician and former Prime Minister Wilfried Martens.

De Wever himself acknowledged that he would not be leading a sudden lurch toward a split between Belgium’s 6 million Dutch-speakers and 4 million francophones. Above cheers of supporters waving the yellow-and-black standard bearing the Flemish lion, he sought to reassure French-speakers.

“Don’t be afraid, reform of the state will be good for all of us,” he told French-language television viewers. “If Belgium is to disappear, it should be the result of a gradual evolution.”

Belgium’s fate is being watched with interest and concern in many parts of Europe, not least in regions such as Scotland, Catalonia and Northern Italy, which have their own strong separatist tendencies. Others will mull the impact on the European Union if the country that hosts its headquarters cannot stay together.

International markets will be wondering about the impact of a prolonged political stalemate on Belgium’s ability to deal with its serious economic difficulties, notably the bulging budget deficit and growing national debt.

The NVA ousted the Christian Democratic and Flemish (CD&V) party of Prime Minister Yves Leterme as the most popular party among Dutch-speaking Belgians. The CD&V scored about 17 percent, ahead of the Socialists. Another separatist party, the far-right Flemish Interest, lost out badly to the NVA, but still scored 12 percent.

In the southern, French-speaking part of the country, the Socialist Party re-established its historic position as the dominant political force with close to 35 percent of the vote, well ahead of the liberal Reform Movement, which won 22 percent. The NVA will have 28 seats in the 150-seat Chamber followed by the Socialist Party with 25.

The Dutch-speaking Socialist Party-Difference also won 13 seats, meaning that together the Socialists are the biggest political grouping across the linguistic divide. That means King Albert II faces the tough choice of deciding whether to ask the flamboyant Socialist leader Elio Di Rupo to lead the coalition talks, or turn to De Wever, who wants to replace the monarchy with a Flemish republic.

The prospect that Di Rupo, the son of Italian immigrants, could become the first Socialist and first French-speaking prime minister since 1974 would risk further inflaming feelings in Flanders.

The Socialist Party’s reputation for corruption, inefficiency and lax finances has been a major factor in fueling separatist sentiment in Flanders, where there is widespread resentment that Flemish tax revenues fund social security payments in the less-prosperous French-speaking region, Wallonia.

The previous coalition fell in April after the latest dispute over Flemish attempts to roll back minority language rights granted back in the 1960s to Francophones living in officially Dutch-speaking areas around Brussels. That issue has poisoned relations among mainstream parties for years, leading to political deadlock and a rise in support for the Flemish separatists.

Belgium’s two main linguistic communities have been drifting apart for decades, as successive constitutional reforms have weakened the federal government and devolved powers to the regions.

Citizens in Flanders and the French-speaking southern region of Wallonia live largely separate lives and the officially bilingual capital Brussels is the major force holding the country together.

The Flemings claim the city as their historic capital and it plays a key role in the Flemish economy, providing jobs for tens of thousands of commuters. However the city’s population is overwhelmingly French-speaking and strongly opposed to any talk of incorporation into an independent Flanders.