From pandas to planes, Belgium language row resurfaces at vote

From pandas to planes, Belgium language row resurfaces at vote

BRUSSELS - From bickering over giant pandas to aeroplane flight paths, the row between Belgium's northern Dutch-speakers and French-speaking southerners takes political centre-stage at a key vote Sunday.

After a record-breaking impasse that left the country 541 days without a government four years ago, Belgium's future hangs in the balance again with powerful northern separatists set to upset the political apple-cart by topping the vote.

Latest polls show the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), headed by tough-talking Antwerp mayor, Bart De Wever, leading the pack on May 25 with up to 32 percent of the vote in Flanders, four points up from 2010.

To the south, the French-speaking Socialists of outgoing premier Elio Di Rupo - Belgium's first francophone premier in more than three decades and the first Socialist at the helm since 1974 - are forecast to garner 29 to 30 percent, down seven points.

That could open the way to a repeat of the 2010-2011 crisis.

"Should the N-VA do very, very well, the possibility and probability of quickly forming a government will be complex," political scientist Pascal Delwit told AFP.

With neither party set to command a majority as election day nears, other mainstream parties opposed to a break-up of Belgium have rejected any idea of joining a separatist-led N-VA coalition.

Belgium's world-record political deadlock ended with the swearing-in of Di Rupo's government, comprising three parties from the north and three from the south.

Its unlikely mix of left, right and centre politicians brought Belgium back from the brink after a Standard & Poor's downgrade and whopping debt of 96 percent of GDP, just behind Greece and Italy in the eurozone, threatened the worst.

Known as the "bow-tie coalition" because of the premier's necktie fetish, the government has cut the budget by 22 billion euros (S$37 billion) but largely stuck to social-minded policies, avoiding the drastic austerity in vogue elsewhere in Europe.

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