Belgium coalition talks seek to bridge deep divide

Election posters in Brussels Flemish separatists polled well in Flanders

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For the first time, a party calling for the separation of the Dutch- and French-speaking parts of Belgium will be the largest in the Parliament. What might this mean for the fractured state?

Building a coalition government in Belgium is often a fraught process.

After the last elections in 2007, it took nearly 200 days to put together an unwieldy and ultimately unstable administration.

It collapsed three times in as many years. But the results of these elections mean the process could be even more complicated this time round.

Belgium is a country divided. The southern region of Wallonia - poorer, with higher than average unemployment - is home to mostly French speakers, who make up about 40% of the population.

The other 60% are Dutch speakers who live in the more prosperous Flemish north.

To add confusion, the capital Brussels is officially a bilingual (but largely francophone) enclave in Flemish territory.

The linguistic gulf runs deep. There are no significant national political parties - they too follow the language split, so there are both francophone and Flemish versions of liberal, socialist, Christian democrat and green parties.

Likewise, there are no national broadcasters, no national newspapers or magazines.

So to talk of a national general election in Belgium gives a rather misleading impression.

In fact this weekend saw three elections - one in Wallonia, one in Flanders and a separate vote in Brussels.

The results were a stunning victory for the Flemish separatists of the New Flemish Alliance (NVA), which won about 30% of the vote in Flanders that leaves them as the biggest party in Parliament.

But in the French-speaking region, the Socialists (PS) did well and, when combined with the Flemish Socialists, they will probably be the largest political group.

So you could have the intriguing possibility of the first French-speaking prime minister since 1974 (the PS leader Elio di Rupo) having to work with Bart De Wever, leader of the NVA.

On the face of it, this looks unworkable. Mr De Wever talks of "confederalism" but his long-term aim is to see the Belgian state wither away.

Break-up fears

The country is already highly decentralised. Education, health, and transport are all the responsibility of powerful regional parliaments.

But some Flemish politicians - not just Mr De Wever - are calling for even more powers to be devolve - like tax, employment and the national social security system.

This alarms many francophones. While they may agree that the system isn't working, the fear is that further devolution is a precursor to the break-up of the state.

Despite the difficulties though, there may be just enough common ground on the need for reform for the two biggest parties in the parliament to work together.

Those talks are getting under way now and they will be long and complicated.

But Belgium cannot really wait for months while the politicians grind out a deal. Government debt is growing.

Belgium has the third largest debt-to-national-output ratio in Europe, behind Greece and Italy.

Investors have already shown some nervousness at the prospect of long, drawn-out coalition talks.

There is also the small matter of Belgium assuming the presidency of the European Union for six months from July.

It is a role that allows countries to influence the agenda of the EU, as well as raising their international profile.

The most optimistic guess is that a coalition will be in place in September. But by then we will be almost halfway through Belgium's time in the presidency.

So does this election mean Belgium will split? Despite the strong showing by the New Flemish Alliance, there are still formidable obstacles in the way.

What would happen to bilingual Brussels, the Belgian armed forces, the national debt?

And most importantly, while the NVA did win the support of 30% of Flemish voters, many more people voted for parties that want to keep the country together - for now, at least.

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