Belgium faces split if Flemish win ballot

BELGIUM'S 6.5 million Dutch/Flemish and four million Walloon/French-speakers are locked in a quarrelsome union, and voters in a general election today might well prescribe a political divorce.

A mainstream Flemish party that is expected to do well is invoking the concept of irreconcilable differences to seek a separation and, in time, take the country's Dutch-speaking Flanders region into the European Union as a separate nation.

This is a nightmare scenario for poorer Wallonia, Belgium's Francophone south, which greatly depends on Flemish funds.

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Early elections were called after premier Yves Leterme's five-party coalition fell apart on 26 April in a dispute over a bilingual voting district.

That issue has pushed the New Flemish Alliance – a tiny, centrist party only a few years ago – into pole position: it is forecast to win a quarter of the vote in Flanders.

Its leader, and perhaps Belgium's next premier, Bart de Wever, 39, wants an orderly break-up of Belgium by shifting the national government's last remaining powers, notably justice, health and social security, to Flanders and Wallonia.

Such a move would complete 30 years of ever greater self-rule for the two Belgian regions.

The new Flemish alliance wants Flanders to join the EU. There are no comparable separatist sentiments in Wallonia.

Finance minister Didier Reynders, a Francophone Liberal, says the question facing Belgians is: "Do we still want to live together?"

In Belgium just about everything, from political parties to broadcasters to boy scouts and voting ballots, already comes in Flemish and Walloon versions.