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Europe

Belgium's Socialists, Liberals Taste Victory Again

Belgian Prime Minister Verhofstadt is set to form a new center-left government after the ruling Liberals and Socialists registered a thumping win in polls that also produced huge gains for a far-right party.

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Belgium's Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt has won a fresh mandate.

Belgium’s Liberals and Socialists came up trumps in both the northern Flemish-speaking Flanders and Francophone Walloon in the south on Sunday’s general election, despite the collapse of their coalition partner, the Greens.

"Voters have given us the mandate to continue our work of modernization and change in this country in the next few years," Verhofstadt, 50, told cheering members of his Flemish liberal party (VLD).

With unemployment high and economic growth sluggish, Verhofstadt is focusing on fiscal reform and tax cuts. He has also vowed to reform the judiciary and get tough on immigration.

Verhofstadt, compared to Harry Potter on account of his round glasses, mop of ginger hair and boyish face, is 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 Socialists made the biggest gains but fell just short of overtaking Verhofstadt’s Liberals as the largest party in the Flemish-speaking northern Flanders, which traditionally takes the initiative to form a new government.

Latest projections by the VRT broadcasting network forecast the Liberals and Socialists would take 96 of the 150 seats in the lower house of parliament.

Record gains for far-right

The surprise of the election went to Belgium’s far-right Vlaams Blok party, which has ties with French extreme-right leader Jean-Marie Len Pen. The party increased its share of the vote to a record 17.9 percent in Flanders from the 15.4 percent it won in 1999.

Wahlen in Belgien Filip Dewinter

Leader of the far-right Vlaams Blok (Flemish Bloc) Filip Dewinter, center,

Vlaams Blok, which campaigns for zero tolerance on crime and takes a strong anti-immigrant line, has seen its support base spreading from urban strongholds into rural areas. "This is a very important victory for the Vlaams Blok," party leader Filip Dewinter (photo) told Reuters.

Greens flounder at polls

However the electoral triumph will not see the far-right party enter a ruling coalition as all mainstream parties refuse to deal with the Blok, branding it racist and xenophobic.

Verhofstadt’s VLD has ruled in a coalition with the Socialists and the Greens for the past four years. But with the Greens failing to clear the required 5 percent hurdle to be able to enter a coalition, the new Belgian government could well consist of just two parties.

Voters booted out the Greens partly out of anger at their campaigning against arms exports to Nepal, night flights over Brussels and tobacco advertising, which cost Belgium its Formula One motor racing grand prix.

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.

The result is that the country’s 10 million people have six governments: one federal, three regional, one francophone and one Flemish. The political parties are also organized along linguistic lines and obliged to form coalitions with each other to reach a majority.