Flanders Favors Nationalist Newcomer

Flemish separatists are on the rise while French-speaking Belgium remains mired in recession.

Elections in Belgium on Sunday are set to push the conservative New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) to the forefront of federal politics. The party that promotes the secession of Flanders won nearly a third of the vote in the Dutch-speaking northern part of the country. In the south, the socialists were on the rise, winning more than 40 percent of the vote in French-speaking Wallonia. In spite of losing slightly in Flanders, the socialists are expected to deliver the next prime minister.

Prime Minister Yves Leterme’s second government, formed by a coalition of five parties, including conservatives, liberals and socialists, collapsed last April, tumbling the country into yet another round of political uncertainty. Belgium has had three different governments since the end of 2008, two of which were chaired by Leterme.

After the last cabinet tendered its resignation, many voters on the right evidently switched to N-VA which was founded in 2001 and is running for parliament independently for the first time in this election. The conservative party, traditionally dominant in Flanders, lost over 10 percent of its share of the vote. The right-wing Vlaams Belang, infamous for its staunch positions on immigration, lost over a third of its 2007 votes to N-VA.

Tensions between north and south have grown evermore fierce in recent years up, sometimes culminating in downright hostility. Flanders is the economic powerhouse of Belgium while Wallonia remains impoverished and plagued by unemployment. With the socialists in power there, the Walloons enjoy a welfare state for which the Flemish say they are footing the bill.

N-VA promises greater autonomy for Flanders and would ultimately like to see it separate from the French-speaking south. The Walloons on the other hand want Flanders to surrender a largely French-speaking district that surrounds the capital of Brussels to their control. Unsurprisingly, Belgian media are wondering about their country’s very future these days.

A federal government formed by N-VA, conservatives and socialists appears likely at this stage. Such a coalition already governs in Flanders in spite of significant differences in opinion about economics and Belgium’s political future. The negotiations that should lead to the formation of a new government will probably drag on for many months. The last formation took almost two hundred days.