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.

Economic crisis takes toll

But gloom over the economic crisis has taken its toll of the ruling coalition while De Wever has toned down his hardline separatist slogans even as he argued in favour of a confederal system.

"Naturally we would want to split up social welfare," which currently is run at national level, De Wever said during a TV debate last week.

Each of the country's regions, including a small German one, should "be able to follow its own path", leaving only foreign and defence policy in the hands of the central government, De Wever says.

"You want to put a stop to Belgium," retorted French Socialist party leader Paul Magnette, saying it was the differences between the two language communities "that make Belgium's grandness and beauty".

Though the bickering has eased since Di Rupo took over, in the weeks leading up to Sunday's vote a new language-linked dispute emerged over flight paths above Brussels, an officially bilingual city located in Flanders but with a majority of French-speakers.

Brussels airport lies in Flanders just two kilometres (1.3 miles) away from the Belgian capital and a change in air corridors in February to accommodate Flemish complaints about noise pollution triggered anger from Francophone residents now made to suffer.

That dispute appears deadlocked until after Sunday's vote.

And a few months ago some in Flanders were so incensed that a pair of giant pandas handed to Belgium by China had found their way into a zoo in a French-speaking area that De Wever made a surprise protest on TV - appearing disguised as a panda.

Analysts say the critical issue will be the strength of the vote for the N-VA's anti-Socialist, liberal economic plank in Flanders, home to almost 60 percent of the country's 11 million people.

Belgians will be voting for both regional parliaments - in Brussels, Flanders and southern French-speaking Wallonia - as well as for the 150-seat federal assembly.

Should the non-separatist Flemish parties gather more than half the seats in the regional parliaments, they would be in a comfortable position to agree a federal coalition with like-minded French parties allergic to De Wever's separatist leanings.

But should the N-VA score well over 30 percent it will remain a key political player, impossible to ignore.