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Europe

Belgium Elections Could See Prime Minister Back in Office

Belgians go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new federal parliament. The complex political structure, language divides and a plethora of parties have made it difficult to cut through to the election issues.

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Belgium's Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt (left) is seeking a second term.

Belgium’s 7.5 million eligible voters have an unenviable task on their hands on May 18 when the country faces a general election. Faced with a choice between six major parties spanning the spectrum from far-left to far-right, voters in the trilingual country have to further contend with each party having a Flemish and francophone section with their own agenda.

Though officially bilingual, Belgium’s population is divided regionally and linguistically into the northern Flemish-speaking Flanders, francophone Walloon to the south and the capital of Brussels as an independent region. Further there are about 70,000 German speakers in the east.

The result is that the country’s 10 million people have six governments: one federal, three regional, one francophone and one Flemish. The complex structure and maze of parties has made it hard for pollsters to predict how an election will affect the make-up of the central government.

Verhofstadt clear forerunner

Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, whose Flemish Liberal Party (VLD) has ruled in a coalition with Socialists and Greens for four years, remains the clear forerunner in the election.

Verhofstadt, whose electoral triumph in 1991 forced the Flemish Christian Democrats into opposition for the first time in 41 years, is now seeking a second term. Verhofstadt’s "rainbow coalition" of Liberals, Socialists and Greens is largely credited with turning the mainly Roman Catholic Belgium away from its conservative roots to become nearly as permissive as its Dutch neighbor by legalizing gay marriage and euthanasia and decriminalizing cannabis.

The coalition is focusing on fiscal reform and tax cuts in this election campaign, at a time when Belgium is suffering from high unemployment and poor economic growth. It also has spoken of reforming the judiciary and getting tough on immigration.

Attracting votes through greater foreign clout

Verhofstadt, who joined France and Germany in opposing the U.S.-led war in Iraq and obstructed NATO efforts to boost Turkey’s defenses before the conflict, has attempted in recent months to profile himself as a player on the European stage.

The four-way defense summit with Germany, France and Luxembourg a short time ago was considered Verhofstadt’s most effective election appearance, when the prime minister took the lead in promoting a European defense headquarters separate from NATO.

Future of "rainbow coalition" uncertain

But despite Verhofstadt’s good personal chances of winning a fresh mandate, it is doubtful whether his coalition will remain in power.

Recent public disagreements within the ruling coalition on issues ranging from tobacco advertising to arms sales to Nepal have further diminished hopes for the coalition. Just two weeks ago, two Green ministers from Verhofstadt’s coalition walked out of the government after a row with the prime minister over a compromise deal on night flights over Brussels.

The success of the coalition also hinges on crucial parliamentary elections in northern Flemish-speaking Flanders, where the Christian Democrats could defeat the Flemish Liberal party by a thin majority. In southern French-speaking Walloon, the Francophone Liberal party stands almost no chance, with the victory of the Francophone Socialists almost a foregone conclusion.

Verhofstadt may only form the government again if the Francophone Liberals in Walloon muster enough votes to become the second-strongest party. Then the two liberal parties can remain in the top spot on the federal level. A coalition must have a majority in both parts of the country.

Analysts say that the survival of the "rainbow coalition" could be hindered by a strong showing from the far-right Vlaams Blok, which campaigns for zero tolerance on crime and is known for its strong anti-immigrant and anti-Moslem leanings. Latest polls show that the party could win as much as 18 percent of the votes in Flanders.

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