Belgium votes as Flemish nationalists seek breakthrough
BRUSSELS - Agence France-Presse
Belgian Flemish right-wing party (N-VA) President Bart De Wever (2nd L) waits to cast his vote for Belgium's local elections in Deurne October 14, 2012. REUTERS/Yves HermanBelgium voted on Sunday in local elections seen as a potential make or break poll on the country's future, with Flemish nationalist leader Bart De Wever seeking a big breakthrough.
Nearly eight million voters began casting ballots from 8:00 am (0600 GMT), the last polls closing at 4:00 pm (1400 GMT) in the capital Brussels, with the first results under a complicated proportional voting system expected by late evening.
Flemish nationalist leader Bart De Wever is seeking to make a big breakthrough in Antwerp, where he hopes to win the mayor's office as a stepping stone to general elections in two years' time.
The outcome is also being closely followed as the eurozone debt crisis tests loyalties in the European Union, driving some such as Catalonia in Spain or Scotland to push harder for independence.
For De Wever, the first prize is Antwerp, where his N-VA (New Flemish Alliance) is trying to take the mayor's seat, held for 90 years by the Socialists he derides.
"If we can take Antwerp, then we are waking up in a different country," De Wever said of Europe's second biggest port and Belgium's economic heart just 40 minutes' drive from Brussels.
"Antwerp is without doubt the key," said political analyst Dave Sinardet.
If De Wever wins there, it could destabilise the fragile political consensus which allowed the Socialist Party of Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo to finally form a government in December 2011 after some 500 days of bitter haggling.
Since then, the coalition of six parties of the left, centre and right has held. A breakthrough in Antwerp for the N-VA could spell a constitutional headache, especially since De Wever regards the central government as "illegitimate." Recent opinion polls gave the N-VA up to 40 percent -- compared with just 5.0 percent in the last local vote six years ago -- but the Socialists may do as well, especially in their southern strongholds, making coalitions the most likely outcome, as at the national level, and Antwerp the key result to watch.
De Wever himself described the vote as "do-or-die," and his victory would raise fundamental questions about Belgium's future as a unitary state.
Tensions, even resentment, between the Flemish, prosperous north, which generally votes to the right, and the Walloon south run by what he described as irresponsible, free-spending Socialists, were driving a "democratic revolt," he said.
Flanders "clearly wants to go the German way," De Wever told AFP on the hustings, while Wallonia "wants to go the Latin way.
"I have no problem with Socialist rule -- but if you want Socialist rule, pick up the bill yourself ... don't send it to someone else!" he said bluntly.
A youthful 41-year-old who shed an incredible 60 kilogrammes (132 pounds) after a crash diet, De Wever argues that a central state in Belgium, which gained independence from the Netherlands in 1830, is now redundant as its powers have either been ceded to the EU or to regional institutions.
"This is where we are going in Belgium -- and this is where we are going in Europe," he said.
The vote throughout 589 Belgian municipalities is theoretically obligatory, although the country's justice minister Annemie Turtelboom said during the week that no action would be taken against non-voters.