Belgium’s controversial Flemish separatists looked set to take the lead in a general election Sunday marred by an attack against the Jewish Museum in Brussels, the first such incident in 30 years.
First estimates gave 33 percent of the vote in Flanders to the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) headed by tough-talking Antwerp mayor Bart De Wever.
With Flanders in the north accounting for 60 percent of Belgium’s population of 11 million, the result, if confirmed, would see the NV-A become the biggest party in the language-divided nation.
“Vicit vim virtus”, De Wever told supporters in Latin — meaning “Courage overcame violence”.
The French-speaking Socialists from southern Wallonia, headed by incumbent premier Elio Di Rupo, scored just over 30 percent.
However, De Wever’s lead may prove to be too small to enable him to form a regional government in northern Flanders, while at the federal level he may find it difficult to find allies to join a coalition.
With votes counted at 87 percent of polling stations, the Flemish separatists had secured four of 21 EU parliamentary seats available to Belgium, with the francophone Socialists and two other parties on three seats each.
“Bart De Wever as prime minister would be like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse,” said Di Rupo.
The Flemish nationalist leader responded “don’t be concerned, we don’t want a revolution, just solutions.”
Belgium has no national political parties, with the current federal coalition government made up of groups from both sides of its invisible but very real linguistic border.
According to tradition, it will be up to King Philip to ask the leader of Sunday’s winning party to form a government. It will be his first election as king, having come to the throne only last year.
Sunday’s vote was clouded by the first apparently anti-Semitic attack in the country since the early 1980s.
Four people — an Israeli couple, a French woman and a young Belgian man — were shot dead in an attack on the eve of the vote by a lone gunman who opened fire in the museum and escaped on foot.
All eyes were on the N-VA showing in the election, the first since an inconclusive 2010 ballot left the divided country without a government for a world record 541 days.
The 2010-2011 deadlock was largely due to the N-VA’s refusal to agree a coalition deal with other parties because of its demands for more devolution — and ultimately its wish to separate Flanders from the rest of Belgium.
This time around De Wever, who was hugely acclaimed by supporters, said “we don’t want a long political crisis … we want to take the initiative to see what is possible.”
Belgium’s world-record political impasse ended with the swearing-in of Di Rupo’s coalition government in 2011, based on three parties from the north and three from the south.
Its unlikely mix of left, right and centre politicians brought Belgium back from the economic brink as a huge debt mountain and a ratings downgrade rattled nerves just as the eurozone economy slumped and Greece got the first of its massive international bailouts.
Known as the “bow-tie coalition” because of the premier’s necktie fetish, the government has cut the budget by 22 billion euros but largely stuck to social-minded policies, avoiding the drastic austerity in vogue elsewhere in Europe.
De Wever and his Flemish nationalists fervently oppose the welfare-oriented policies of the French speakers, however, calling instead for a swing to liberal economic policies.
In 2010, he famously called Belgium a failed state and the French-speaking Wallonia region “a junkie” addicted to subsidies.
“We are for solidarity, including financially. But if we disburse money to Wallonia, it must be done under normal conditions,” he said. “This money cannot be an injection like a drug for a junkie.”