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Separatists win, but Belgium tough to disentangle

Flemish separatists win the most votes, but a French-speaking Socialist could lead coalition talks.

Bart De Wever
Bart De Wever, president of the Flemish right-wing party (NVA), reacts during a party meeting in Brussels following the Belgian general elections June 13, 2010. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

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.