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Frontrunner in Belgian election may be uniting nation over need to split up

GHENT, Belgium (AP) — The frontrunner in Belgium's elections this weekend is running on perhaps the ultimate in divisive proposals: the breakup of the nation.

Despite its status as the home of the European Union, Belgium itself has long struggled with divisions between its 6 million Dutch-speakers and 4.5 million Francophones but until recently talk of a breakup has been limited to extremists.

Now, Bart De Wever of the centrist New Flemish Alliance is pressing for exactly that. What once seemed a preposterous fantasy of the political fringes has, in the mouth of a man seen as a possible prime minister, suddenly takes on an air of plausibility.

"We are in each other's face," De Wever told 800 party faithful packed into a sweaty theater here ahead of Sunday's elections. "And together we are going downhill fast. Flanders and Wallonia must be masters of their own fate."

The consequences of a precedent-setting split would be felt as far away as Spain: wealthy Catalonia has engaged in a long-standing campaign for independence and Basque separatists still set off bombs in their quest for autonomy.

Italy's Northern League, which is in coalition with Silvio Berlusconi's center-right party, has also advocated a split between the rich north and the impoverished south.

Then there's the euro — what would happen to the European common currency if one of its founding members fell apart? Would prosperous Flanders be allowed to join but poorer Wallonia be kept out? Or would both inherit Belgium's right to the currency — even though Belgium itself now no longer meets criteria on issues like the deficit?

De Wever's curtains-for-Belgium campaign finds resonance far beyond the medieval gables and cathedrals of this centuries-old city of 600,000 in the Flemish heartland. Across the nation, both Dutch-speakers and Francophones have tired of the petty linguistic squabbles that have mired government after government in political stalemate.

Carving up Belgium has been a cherished dream for the far-right in Flanders, Belgium's economically dominant north, and a nightmare scenario for poorer French-speaking Wallonia.

Flanders has half the unemployment of and a 25 percent higher per capita income than Wallonia, and Dutch-speakers have long complained that they are subsidizing the lives of their Francophone neighbors.

De Wever's party is forecast to win 26 percent of the vote — way up from 3.2 percent in 2007. That means his party will likely emerge as the biggest in parliament with the right to try to cobble together a coalition government. He will unlikely get other mainstream parties to vote for a Belgian breakup.

That is why he seeks no immediate split but advocates a gradual and orderly breakup of Belgium to punish Christian Democrats, Liberals and Socialists for three years of political gridlock that has prevented them from addressing Belgium's urgent economic woes.

Speaking in Brussels Tuesday, De Wever described Belgium as a country at standstill, economically lagging behind its neighbors and paralyzed by language spats and inefficiency. He complains Flanders transfers €11.3 billion euros ($13.5 billion) a year to Wallonia but has no say in improving governance there.

"Belgium has become the sum of two different democracies (growing apart) with ever increasing speed, in terms of language and culture, but also in socio-economic and political matters."

De Wever wants Flanders and Wallonia to be fully responsible for their own economies and taxation but "we do not want to declare Flanders independent overnight."

He speaks of a confederation — presumably resembling Serbia's ties with Montenegro — but was silent on the fate of the monarchy or the capital of Flanders. Today, overwhelmingly Francophone Brussels is the capital of both Belgium and Flanders.

An April study by French-language broadcaster RTL, showed the Flemish for change: 32 percent wanted outright independence, 17 percent a "confederation" with Wallonia — which would mean de facto independence — and 25 percent more self-rule within Belgium.

As governments worldwide tried to tame a financial crisis and recession, the four governments that ran Belgium since 2007 were caught in a tangle of linguistic spats as the economy treaded water and the national debt ballooned.

In Belgium just about everything — from political parties to broadcasters to boy scouts and voting ballots — comes in Dutch- and French-speaking versions, leading to myriad and sometimes comical spats.

One is about a bilingual voting district covering a chunk of Flanders. It was ruled illegal by the high court in 2003 because only Dutch is the official language in northern Belgium. Another case involved the color of license plates — Dutch speakers want new black-on-white tags, Francophones want to keep Belgium's red-on-white plates.

Rooted in historic imbalances, linguistic differences punctuate politics with a vengeance. Francophones dominated the country well into the 20th century when Flanders, once a rural backwater, overtook it in terms of economic might.

Since the 1970s, the two camps have been given self-rule in urban development, environment, agriculture, employment, energy, culture, sports and research and other areas. Today, Dutch speakers want autonomy in justice, health, taxation and labor matters.

The only French-speaking party that wants Belgium to break up is the far-right — and tiny — National Front which wants Wallonia to join France.

The Belgian divide goes beyond language.

Flanders tends to be conservative and free-trade minded. Wallonia's long-dominant Socialists have a record of corruption and poor governance.

"We have become two different peoples," explains Jean-Marie Dedecker, head of a Flemish party that bears his name. "We are socially and culturally divided. We don't read each other's newspapers. We don't watch each other's TV programs."

Finance Minister Didier Reynders, a Francophone, says the question facing Belgium is: "Do we still want to live together? We need a strong federal government to protect the minority."

In Flanders, critics of Belgium say nothing shows the country's division better than the speed trap gap along its highways: The Flemish government has so far installed 1,557, the Walloon government 163.

Complicating Belgium's linguistic puzzle is Brussels. The city is an enclave in Flanders, but overwhelmingly French-speaking, and for many embodies the political inefficiency that disturbs De Wever.

The bureaucracy-laden city offers jobs to almost 1,000 public office holders, hosts the national and Flemish governments as well as its own regional government and assembly, and has always remained an amalgam of 19 towns — boasting 19 mayors and 19 city councils.