Belgium may appear to outsiders as a good example of ethnic power sharing, but the last time the French-speaking Walloons supplied the country's Prime Minister was in 1978. So, in Sunday's national elections, they are itching to smash the Flemish grip on the top job.A victory by the leading French-speaking candidate, Elio di Rupo, would make history not only because of his language, but as Europe's first openly gay Prime Minister. As leader of the Socialist Party (PS) in Wallonia and also the region's minister-president Di Rupo, 55, is the heavyweight of Francophone politics. And the fact that his origins are Italian, Belgium's second-largest immigrant community after Moroccans, adds a third dimension to the identity challenge represented by his candidacy. But the dapper, bow-tied Di Rupo is handicapped by recurrent scandals in his Socialist Party, and has been criticized for his poor command of the Flemish language.
His main rival from Wallonia is Didier Reynders, the head of the liberal Reform Movement (MR), a 48-year-old energetic business-oriented conservative who hopes to catch some of the bounce from Nicolas Sarkozy's recent victory in France. Reynders, who is also Finance Minister, was even in Paris on May 6 to celebrate Sarkozy's triumph.
Both Di Rupo and Reynders believe that Francophones are long overdue a turn at the premiership. Their community accounts for just 40% of the country's 10.6 million population, but they believe they are in their best position for over a generation to claim the premiership, believing they have overcome negative perceptions of the Walloon community by their Flemish neighbors.
Still, even doing well in the election is no guarantee of getting the top job. Pierre Blaise of the Crisp political research center, explains: "Forming a government in Belgium is a two-step process. You have to first hold the election and see the arithmetic of the results. Then you have to negotiate on the coalition, which is not just about the Prime Minister, but all the other ministers and the overall government mandate. If Di Rupo or Reynders do well in the election, we would then have to see if they can negotiate as well."
Belgium became independent in 1830 after a Francophone revolt against the country's Dutch rulers. Cultural and linguistic tensions have been a constant throughout its history, but Belgium's politicians have been remarkably adept at developing compromise mechanisms to maintain a tenuous balance between Flemish and French-speakers whose famously separate communities have different economic profiles, tastes, influences and habits. Talk of devolution is rife, and last December French state broadcaster RTBF interrupted its regular programming to announce that Flanders had declared independence. Viewers were shocked by the grainy footage of King Albert II and Queen Paola heading for the airport to flee the country. The program was an elaborate hoax, but the outrage it provoked appeared to underline the fragility of the country.
Under the circumstances, the election campaign has been comparatively restrained on the issues that divide the two communities. Despite their differences, the evidence suggests that both the Flemish and the Walloons are loath to split: A survey March revealed that both 93% Flemings and 98% Walloons wanted Belgium to continue to exist in some form although only 40% believed it would 50 years from now.
Despite the optimism of Di Rupo and Reynders, the favorites for the Prime Minister's job remain Flemish: Christian Democrat leader Yves Leterme; Socialist Party leader Johan Vande Lanotte; and Flemish Liberal leader and outgoing Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt.
Front-runner Leterme, 46, has sparked anger by saying that the Belgian nation is an "accident of history" with "no intrinsic value", and accusing Francophones of "lacking the mental capacity to learn Dutch." But even if he emerges as Prime Minister, French speakers should not be too distraught. As Leterme is the son of a Francophone father, they could even claim he is one of theirs.