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Separatist party wins big in Belgian election

By Robert Wielaard
Associated Press / June 14, 2010

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BRUSSELS — A separatist party that advocates independence for the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium, leaving the country’s French speakers to fend for themselves, pulled off an unprecedented win in yesterday’s general election.

Final results gave the Dutch-speaking New Flemish Alliance — a fringe factor until now — 27 of the 150 legislative seats, up 19 from the 2007 vote. That pushed the long-dominant Christian Democrats into second place.

The outcome was seen as a warning to Francophone politicians to negotiate seriously about granting Dutch- and French-speakers more self rule, or Dutch-speakers will opt for independence.

The New Flemish Alliance drew votes away from Premier Yves Leterme’s outgoing coalition of Christian Democrats, Liberals, and Socialists, whose three years in office were marked by linguistic spats that remained unresolved.

The Alliance’s success marks the first time a Flemish nationalist movement overtook traditional parties with an agenda to break up Belgium, which became independent from the Netherlands in 1830.

Belgium comprises Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and the French-speaking southern region of Wallonia. The bilingual capital of Brussels is a third and separate region.

Just about everything in the country — from political parties to broadcasters to boy scouts and voting ballots — comes in Dutch- and French-speaking versions. Even charities such as the Red Cross and Amnesty International have separate chapters.

Bart De Wever, 39, leader of the New Flemish Alliance, urged “Francophones to make [a country] that works. If we don’t, we slide backward.’’

In pursuit of an orderly breakup of Belgium, his party accuses economically backward Wallonia of bad governance and immunity to reform, with a jobless rate double that of Flanders. But if De Wever becomes premier of Belgium’s 6.5 million Dutch- and 4 million French-speakers, he will head a coalition government that will inevitably force him to tone down his independence talk and negotiate for more regional self rule within Belgium.

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