Belgium has begun the search for a coalition government after right-wing Flemish separatists won Sunday's parliamentary election. Final official results released by the national electoral commission on Monday show that the New Flemish Alliance (NVA) secured 27 seats in the 150-seat lower house of parliament, up from just eight seats in 2007.
The NVA, led by 39-year-old Bart De Wever, ultimately wants to split the wealthy Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north from Belgium's poorer, French-speaking region of Wallonia in the south. De Wever passionately advocates the end of Belgium, calling its six million Dutch-speakers and 4.5 million Francophones a "hopeless mismatch." Linguistic disputes have long hounded Belgium and dominated the election campaign. But a split-up of Belgium after this election is unlikely.
French-speaking rivals come close second
The French-speaking Socialists (PS) with 26 seats are now the country's second largest party. The Christian Democrats, of outgoing Prime Minister Yves Leterme secured just 17 seats.
Together, the NVA and the PS would have just over one third of all the seats in parliament.
If the two parties, despite massive ideological differences, formed a coalition, then 58-year old PS leader Elio Di Rupo could end up becoming Belgium's first French-speaking prime minister since 1974, as De Wever has said he does not want the job.
"You don't have to like each other to work together," said Di Rupo. “We French-speaking Belgians must take a step towards our Dutch-speaking counterparts, and vice versa, if we are to negotiate issues that we cannot avoid for our country.”
Due to linguistic, political and economic differences, Belgium has had four governments and three prime ministers since 2007.
Another long wait would worry financial markets
Long talks could worry financial markets. Analysts are concerned months of coalition talks could delay cuts to state spending.
"If in September we see that a government isn't being formed, if we see the crisis is prolonged, then we could see a market reaction at that time," said Jacques De Pover, an economist at Dexia.
"The party that got the most votes is a separatist party and it throws into question over a long timeframe, over a few years and longer ... who's going to pay that debt back," said Peter Chatwell, a strategist at Credit Agricole.
Nothing changes, for now
Leterme's administration will remain in charge until a new government is formed. King Albert II met with Leterme on Monday and formally accepted his government's resignation. The King also received the heads of both houses of parliament and begun holding talks with party leaders including de Wever.
Leterme is still expected to be in office when Belgium takes on the six-month rotating presidency of the 27-member EU on July 1.
The European Commission has expressed confidence that Belgium's own political troubles will not affect its ability to handle EU policy matters during the six months.
Author: Wilhelmina Lyfytt (AFP/dpa/Reuters)
Editor: Michael Lawton