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Flemish voters back nationalists in local elections

Belgium has been voting in local elections that have taken on added significance in light of the country’s linguistic divide. Flemish nationalists looked set to make strides in pulling away from French-speaking Wallonia.

With nearly 80 percent of votes counted late on Sunday, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) had taken a 36 percent share in the port city of Antwerp, Flanders' largest city.

Across Flanders, the N-VA appeared be garnering 20-30 percent of the vote, compared with just 5 percent in municipal polls six years ago.

Party leader Bart De Wever, pictured, was on the brink of becoming mayor of Antwerp. It is position he has promised to build on ahead of national elections in 2014, using the prominence it gives him to challenge the central government of Socialist Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo.

The vote was described in advance by De Wever as "do-or-die" in a "democratic revolt" by Flanders against the less prosperous French-speaking region of Wallonia. The NV-A argues that Flanders is effectively subsidizing Wallonia and that the region should have maximum autonomy.

After the election, De Wever called on Di Rupo and his coalition partner parties to "assume responsibility."

"We need full reform to enable both Flanders and Wallonia to look after their own affairs," he said, adding that this would allow Belgium as a whole to "find a path of solidarity."

Appeal on behalf of city

The incumbent mayor of Antwerp, Patrick Janssens, conceded defeat to the NV-A, having only gathered about 29.5 percent of the vote. He appealed for De Wever to make the welfare of the city his focus.

"We have lost the elections," Janssens said. "The initiative is now up to Mr. De Wever. We call on him to put the city at the center of his attention."

Unlike other nationalist parties which demand full independence, the NV-A is calling for “maximum autonomy.”

The day before the election, De Wever told a rally that "the Flemish have had enough of being treated like cows only good for their milk."

Early on Sunday, voting was beset by what officials described as "technical" difficulties, attributed to problems with scanning machines.

rc/mkg (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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