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Belgians prepare for another standoff after polls

Thursday - 5/22/2014, 6:34am  ET

In this image taken Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013 Belgian music artist Stromae performs with his costume in the colours of the Belgian tricolour, during a World Cup Group A qualifying soccer match between Belgium and Wales, at the King Baudouin stadium in Brussels. Walk through Belgium and feel that giddy sense of unity, the national football team is going to the World Cup again. Follow the election campaign though, and the division between Dutch- and French-speakers seems even worse than four years ago when it took a record 541 days to form a government uniting the bickering sides. (AP Photo/Yves Logghe)

RAF CASERT
Associated Press

BRUSSELS (AP) -- The national mood in Belgium right now is like two different worlds. A giddy sense of unity has overtaken the country because the national soccer team is going to the World Cup, but a parliamentary election campaign has left the nation divided like never before.

Schizophrenic? Maybe. Politics as usual? For sure.

Beyond soccer, the divide between the Dutch-speaking Flemings and Francophones seems every bit as deep as four years ago when it took a record 541 days to form a government.

Most European Union nations go to the polls to elect a European Parliament on Sunday, the same day Belgium will hold national parliamentary elections. For Belgians, the EU vote will be an afterthought to what really is at stake: what to do about the kingdom and its two diverse groups, 6.5 million Dutch speakers in northern Flanders and 4.5 million Francophones in southern Wallonia.

"Everywhere I have been, I sense the same yearning for linguistic calm," Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo said.

"The people are sick of it, pushing and pulling Belgium every which way," he was quoted as saying in Het Laatste Nieuws newspaper.

The raucous support for the overachieving soccer team, combined with a massive marketing campaign that paints the nation in its black, yellow and red colors, would seem to support that.

But Di Rupo is from poorer Wallonia, which traditionally has been more bent on unity since it would likely find it more difficult to survive on its own. He craves a lull in linguistic fighting.

It is exactly the point that bothers Di Rupo's challenger, opposition leader Bart De Wever from the N-VA Flemish regionalist party. His star has been rising for a half dozen years and he is now by far the most popular politician in the north of the country, campaigning on a platform that Wallonia is a burden to Flanders, preventing it from getting ahead. That is why he wants more drastic devolution as soon as possible.

For De Wever, Wallonia is embodied by the PS socialist party there. It has been in power for decades as the steel and coal industrial heartland of much of the 20th century turned into a rustbelt, while Flanders increasingly thrived with nimble companies and liberal policies. Time and again, De Wever has said he doesn't want to govern with Walloon socialists, whom he portrays as living on subsidies and taxes earned by hardworking Flemish entrepreneurs.

"Flemings and Francophones don't understand each other anymore," said De Wever. "We live in separate worlds."

Polls show De Wever and his party will remain by far the biggest party in Flanders, easily dominating all others. If the N-VA party easily breaks 30 percent north of the linguistic border, no other party reaches 20 percent.

In Wallonia, Di Rupo's PS is close to 30 percent and finds others closer at its heels with the liberal MR at just over 20 percent.

Belgium has reached the World Cup for the first time since 2002. But even if the love of the soccer team still crosses the linguistic border and gives the nation that rare sense of unity, decades of constitutional reform for greater regional autonomy have already institutionalized many divisions. For example, a citizen from De Wever's Antwerp can't vote for a Walloon like Di Rupo.

So Sunday's elections will only draw the battle lines that the Flemish and Francophone parties will face when they have to forge a national coalition in which both sides must constitutionally be represented.

The deep-seated differences and palpable animosity between Di Rupo and De Wever were largely to blame for the record stalemate after the last elections, when the Belgian standoff turned from months into a year and then some.

So, this time again, chances for a quick breakthrough in government talks aren't rated highly.

"Absolutely not," said professor Dave Sinardet of VUB Brussels university.

He said De Wever's N-VA would find itself in a Catch-22 if negotiations are going the right way. "Their analysis was that you cannot govern in Belgium because the differences are too big. And then they would prove that it is possible. They would prove that Belgium is a workable option after all."

By the time talks reach that crux, Belgium's soccer team might already be home from the June 12-July 13 World Cup in Brazil -- with or without the trophy.

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Follow Raf Casert on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/rcasert


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