Belgium faces the difficult task of forming a new coalition government after Flemish separatists came first in Sunday's parliamentary election, sparking concern that one of the founding members of the European Union may split in two. It looks doubtful whether Belgium will have a new government in place before it takes over the EU's presidency for six months at the beginning of July.
The New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), which wants to split Belgium along linguistic lines, emerged as the strongest party in the richer, Dutch-speaking Flanders region of northern Belgium and won the most votes in the whole country of 10.6 million people on Sunday.
The party, led by Bart De Wever, advocates the gradual disappearance of Belgium and argues that the 1993 break-up of Czechoslovakia is a model for clean splits. It has pledged to to deliver more powers to Flanders and favors a confederation in which the national government's responsibilities would be limited to foreign policy and the military.
The French-speaking party leaders have expressed a willingness to reform the state but say De Wever's "confederal" system goes too far. The French-speaking Socialist Party (PS) emerged as the second strongest party in Belgium, winning most votes in the southern, Francophone region of Wallonia.
Together with the Flemish socialists, the PS could form the largest group in parliament, meaning PS leader Elio di Rupo could become the next prime minister. N-VA leader Bart De Wever said he could be ready to give up the premiership in return for reforms of the state.
A clash over the electoral boundaries in and around the capital Brussels sparked the collapse of the government in April. German media commentators say that the election has nudged Belgium so close to a break-up that it might actually help keep the country together, by focusing minds and encouraging the two sides to compromise.
Conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"Belgium is a failed state -- those aren't the words of some distant observer but of Bart De Wever, the election winner in Flanders. The party chairman of the Socialists, Elio di Rupo, will now presumably be assigned the task of forming a government because De Wever isn't remotely interested in the job. He only wants to push through greater autonomy for Flanders and thereby cause the dissolution of the joint state -- not today or tomorrow, but gradually. But Belgium isn't lost yet. The majority of Flemish people did not vote for the separatist party. And the Walloons are against a separation in any case. But will the personality of the king and the remaining common ground suffice for the necessary compromises?"
Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The election has exposed more clearly than any to date the political and cultural rift running through the country. But because this has now been exposed so starkly, the politicians have no room left for trickery and intrigue. If all parties realize that they now face the moment of truth, Belgium still has a chance, albeit a last one. If the country now fails to reform the state in a way that ensures the Flemish no longer feel that they are always being made to pay for the supposedly lazy Walloons, it will be a lost cause."
Left-wing daily Die Tageszeitung writes:
"The election is a watershed because the front lines are now completely clear. The majority of the Flemish population voted for conservative separatists while the Walloons mostly voted for the Socialists who want Belgium to stay intact. These very clear fronts could help to reach a compromise after years of state crisis. The voters of both parties trust those parties to protect their interests as much as possible -- which is why any concessions won't be regarded as weakness but as limits of what can be negotiated. The outcome of the election looks like a division. But perhaps Belgium is on the way to a new consensus."
Conservative Die Welt writes:
"This election threatens to topple one of the founding member states of the European Union. It can't be foreseen whether Belgium will recover from it. The two largest parties should now form a coalition as soon as possible. On Sunday evening the winners on both sides insisted they wanted to build bridges. It will soon become clear if there is a foundation for that."