BRUSSELS, June 13 (Reuters) - A party that wants to split Belgium was on course to win a parliamentary election on Sunday, a result that could complicate efforts to form a coalition that can deliver reforms of the state and tight budgetary control.
Belgium can ill afford drawn-out coalition talks because it has a large debt and any policy paralysis could make the country vulnerable on financial markets that are closely watching a sovereign debt crisis among the 16 countries that use the euro.
TV projections and initial results showed the Flemish separatist N-VA (New Flemish Alliance), which advocates the gradual dissolution of Belgium, was set to be the largest party in Dutch-speaking Flanders and in the country as a whole.
Flemish public broadcaster VRT estimated it would win 30 of the 150 seats in the lower house of parliament, from just eight now. It forecast heavy losses for the Christian Democrats and the liberals, former partners in government.
"The N-VA has won the election today. We stand before you with a party that has some 30 percent (of the Flemish vote)," N-VA leader Bart De Wever told cheering supporters.
The French-speaking Socialists, whose leader Elio Di Rupo has been widely tipped to become prime minister, were expected to gain six seats to give them 26 overall.
"This is more than I could have ever imagined. We had thought we’d get 24-25 percent so this is great news," N-VA supporter Mia Leyskens, 75, said at a post-election party at which many waved the yellow and black Flanders flag.
Even if the N-VA does win the most votes in the country of 10.6 million people, which hosts the headquarters of the European Union and the Nato military alliance, it will not be able to start devolving powers to the regions immediately.
The electoral system — effectively two elections with separate parties seeking votes from French-speakers and the majority Dutch-speakers — means at least four parties will be needed to form a governing coalition.
Parties from the poorer French-speaking regions are nervous about any form of devolution, seeing it as a step towards the break-up of the country, which they oppose.
This is the first federal election from which a party advocating the end of Belgium could emerge the winner, although the N-VA were allies of the Christian Democrats in 2007.
The party’s lead in polls has triggered a nationwide debate about the possible break-up of the 180-year-old nation, with richer Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia, where unemployment is about double the national average, going their separate ways.
Political analysts draw comparisons between De Wever and Yves Leterme, the Christian Democrat who won the 2007 election on a pledge to win more powers for Flanders.
Leterme took nine months to form his five-party government and offered his resignation three times in as many years. He finally fell after a dispute between Dutch- and French-speakers over the arcane, but emotive issue, of the electoral boundaries around Brussels.
Belgium’s debt-to-GDP ratio, set to rise above 100 percent this year or next, is the third highest in the currency bloc after Greece and Italy.
The debt has been a secondary issue to reform of the state in past weeks, although the N-VA’s opponents have said its success could unsettle financial markets.
Belgium also takes on the six-month presidency of the European Union on July 1, an organisational role that gives a country a chance to shine on the world stage. Some parties have said Belgium needs a government by September at the latest.
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