Correction Appended: June 16, 2010
Is this the beginning of the end for Belgium? The country composed of perennially squabbling French and Dutch speakers has been a precarious construct since its creation in 1830, perpetually on the verge of splitting. But over the years, the state, with its population of 10.8 million, has remained intact by adapting its political institutions to changing moods and accepting hodgepodge coalitions of parties with wildly different agendas. The results of the latest general election, however, suggest it might finally be time to draw the curtain on a uniquely European model of federalism.
On Sunday, June 13, the New Flemish Alliance (Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie, or N-VA), a party that calls for independence for Dutch-speaking Flanders, became the biggest political force in the country, securing 27 seats in the 150-seat Parliament, or 17.4% of the total Belgian vote. In Flanders, a region of 6.5 million people that accounts for almost 60% of the Belgian population, 45% voted for the N-VA or other separatist parties. That might be too powerful a mandate for Brussels to ignore.
"The people of Flanders have voted for change," said N-VA's burly, charismatic leader, 39-year-old Bart De Wever. "We have been living in a gridlocked country. Everything is complicated in this country, and the Flemish don't want that anymore."
Results among French speakers provide further indication of the country's deep division. The Francophone Socialist Party (PS) also saw a surge in support, claiming 26 seats on 13.8% of the national vote. The head of the PS, Elio Di Rupo, 58, is the son of Italian immigrants who is also mayor of the city of Mons. He campaigned on plans to strengthen the federal state, which many Flemish interpret as transferring more subsidies from the rich, Dutch-speaking north to the struggling, French-speaking south. The question now is whether De Wever and Di Rupo can reconcile their contrasting agendas.
"It's a historic result. It's unprecedented. It's an earthquake," says Marc De Vos, the head of the Itinera Institute, a Brussels-based policy think tank. "The divide between the north and the south has never been deeper. And we don't know if it will be possible to reach a compromise between them."
Over the past few years, resentment has only grown between Belgium's Dutch and French speakers. Each side has racked up lists of the other's offenses. In some Flemish communes, for example, children are banned from speaking French on the playground, prospective house buyers cannot purchase property if they don't speak Dutch, and locals are encouraged to report businesses that do not employ Dutch speakers.
The Flemish, on the other hand, see the French speakers as feckless, inefficient and even corrupt. They say that while their own motorways are lined with speed traps, Wallonia has only a handful of cameras on its potholed roads; since revenue from traffic violations goes into a federal pot, the Flemish feel they are effectively being fined by laissez-faire French speakers. "You could say Belgium is one state composed of two countries," says Carl Devos, a political scientist at Ghent University. "But what the Flemish voters really want, more than separation, is for a big reform of the state. The message was quite clear: sort out the problems."
Under Belgium's fragmented political system, a coalition government usually includes five or six parties. Hammering out ministerial portfolios and joint programs can take time: after the June 2007 election, it took nine months to form a coalition government.
But financial difficulties mean Belgium may not be able to wait so long for new leadership. Its overall debt is set to rise to above 100% of GDP this year, lower only than Greece's and Italy's. Although the country runs a trade surplus and household savings are high, it has been slow to recover from the downturn, with GDP rising only 0.1% in the first quarter of 2010. In the wake of the Greek debt crisis, financial markets are especially jittery, and Belgium will need to demonstrate that it has a solid plan to return to fiscal health. In May, Belgian central-bank governor Guy Quaden warned of "dramatic" consequences if Belgium were left with a caretaker administration of limited power for three months or more. At the same time, London-based economic-research house Independent Strategy warned that Belgium could be next in line for the debt contagion that has swept across the euro zone.
The European Union is another pressing matter: Belgium takes over the six-month presidency of the E.U. in July, and a caretaker government might struggle to impose itself on the other 26 member states. "If we don't have a government, it will be a major problem for Belgian authority," says Vincent Dujardin, a historian at the Catholic University of Louvain. "But perhaps more important, it will hurt the image of Belgium abroad."
As the election results came in Sunday night, De Wever sent reassuring messages to his opponents, playing down the outright separatism of his earlier rhetoric. He even said he was prepared to "sacrifice" the post of Prime Minister the most powerful political position in Belgium to Di Rupo if it would help secure an agreement that would give Flanders more autonomy. "You don't have to like each other to work together," De Wever said. Di Rupo, for his part, conceded that Flanders had "manifestly" voted in large numbers for "institutional change."
That, at least, shows there is a will to overcome the divisions between the two sides. And if the country's 180-year history is any guide, they should be able to muddle through with some sort of political fix. But as long as they keep sniping at each other, Belgians will be asking how long they can keep the country together.
The original version of this article misidentified the rich northern part of Belgium as French-speaking and the struggling southern part of the country as Dutch-speaking.