BRUSSELS — Flemish nationalist leader Bart De Wever scored a breakthrough election win Sunday and immediately urged Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo to radically re-shape the federal state.
Hailing a "historic" victory for himself in Antwerp with big gains right across Dutch-speaking Flanders in local polls, De Wever said Di Rupo and his coalition partners should "assume your responsibility."
With results from Antwerp almost all in, De Wever's New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) bagged 37.7 percent and Socialist incumbent mayor Patrick Janssens 28.6 percent, and the win was underpinned by scores of 20-30 percent across the territory of six million people.
With backers readying for a party in City Hall, De Wever demanded negotiations "to enable both Flanders and Wallonia to look after their own affairs."
In the run-up to tense 2014 general elections, he wants to turn Belgium into a "confederation," effectively seeking fiscal independence for the Dutch-speaking north and French-speaking south although sharing areas like defence.
Only this, De Wever said, would allow Belgium as a whole to "find a path of solidarity," which could also affect the future of Brussels, the largely Francophone EU, Belgian and Flemish capital.
Di Rupo rejected the significance of what he said were "local" elections.
"This was not a federal vote," Di Rupo said.
"I acknowledge the success of the N-VA," the premier added. But he insisted that the coalition will develop its own reforms at federal level and maintained that "citizens in Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels will see the fruits of our work."
De Wever, 41, consistently presented these polls in advance as a calculated "stepping stone" aimed at pressuring what he considers an "illegitimate" central government.
French-speaking Socialists came out on top in many areas across francophone Wallonia and the Brussels region, although centrists also made gains.
But after some 90 years under Flemish Socialist control for Antwerp, a port city of global scale, Janssens didn't wait for final results to concede "we have lost these elections -- we must admit that."
"De Wever has easily won his gamble," said Pascal Delwit, a political scientist at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles.
From a five-percent haul six years ago, the nationalist N-VA "wave" now "surges forward" and will lead to "either break-up or confederation," Delwit said.
The N-VA was the biggest party at the last general election in Flanders two years ago, on some 28 percent.
It refused to join talks to form a government that needed more than 500 days of horse-trading to nail down the present coalition.
Sunday's results imply intensifying strains -- De Wever's vision is clear after he lambasted taxpayer transfers to Wallonia amid deep, eurozone-wide public budget cuts.
He told his final rally that "the Flemish have had enough of being treated like cows only good for their milk."
The outcome was "a personal failure" for Di Rupo," said Olivier Maingain of the FDF party of Francophone federalists as the changing political landscape became apparent.
"It's dramatic but it was predictable," Maingain added.
While the vote promises a shake-up in Belgium, it took place in a context where movements seeking independence in different parts of Europe are steadily gaining ground.
On Monday, British Prime Minister David Cameron will sign terms in Edinburgh with the leader of Scotland's government Alex Salmond to render binding the result of a 2014 referendum on independence.
The eurozone debt crisis is also testing solidarity with Catalonia pushing for fiscal autonomy from Spain going into November 25 elections and nationalists seeking a mandate for a referendum on independence, currently banned under Spain's constitution.
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