Political crisis may break up Belgium

BELGIUM yesterday chalked up 100 days without a government, and speculation is mounting that the linguistically divided country will break apart.

Since a general election on 10 June, the country's Flemish and Francophone politicians have failed to agree on a new coalition government, while separatist feeling has surged in Flanders, the wealthier north-western region.

In a poll for Het Laatste Nieuws published yesterday, 46.1 per cent of Flemings want Belgium to split, a big gain for Flemish separatists. Earlier this year, only 5 per cent favoured independence.

Louis Michel, a Francophone liberal politician and Belgium's European commissioner, tried to defuse the situation, saying: "One hundred days to form a government? We've seen worse... the situation is not so dramatic as to suggest we will not find a solution."

In 1987-88, it took 148 days to form a government, but there is no end in sight to the deadlock. The king, Albert II, has appointed a string of politicians to lead talks between rival parties, but all have failed.

Herman van Rompuy, a Flemish Christian Democrat, is the latest to conduct talks with the parties. He took over after Yves Leterme, the prime minister-designate, failed to bring the warring parties together.

Mr Leterme, who until recently was minister-president of Flanders, won 800,000 votes and his Flemish Christian Democrat Party took the highest number of seats in the election.

But he is widely mistrusted by Francophone Belgians. On Belgium's national day in July, he was caught out when asked to sing the national anthem by a TV crew. Mr Leterme launched into a fine rendition of The Marseillaise - the national anthem of France. But even before this gaffe, Francophone Belgians regarded him with suspicion. Previously, he has dismissed the 177-year-old Belgian state as "an accident of history" and said Belgians have nothing in common apart from the king, the football team and some beers.

The main stumbling block to a government is disagreement over state reform. Mr Leterme campaigned on a pledge to devolve more powers to the Flanders region and to split up the Brussels-Hal Vilvoorde region.

Yesterday's poll showed that 85.5 per cent of Flemings support these reforms. But Francophone Belgians are hostile to taking away powers from the federal state, particularly as Wallonia receives transfers from larger and richer Flanders.

Behind this row is a deeper divide. There are no national parties and the country of 10.5 million people has seven parliaments to cater for the different regions and language communities.

Last year, when RTBF, the French state broadcaster, aired a spoof news bulletin that said Belgium had split - complete with "live" pictures of flag-waving Flemings and trams being stopped at the border - it was widely believed.

Meanwhile, one fed-up Belgian citizen put Belgium for sale on eBay. The advert was removed yesterday, but it had received one offer of 7 million.

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