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Nationalists seek breakthrough in Belgian polls

BRUSSELS--Belgium voted on Sunday in local elections seen as a potential make-or-break poll on the country's future, with Flemish nationalist leader Bart De Wever seeking a big breakthrough.

De Wever, who has said he regards the central government in Belgium as illegitimate, hopes to win the mayor's office in Antwerp, Europe's second biggest port and Belgium's economic heart, as a stepping stone to 2014 general elections.

The vote is the latest chapter in a tussle between Belgium's Dutch- and French-speaking halves, and is being closely followed as the eurozone debt crisis tests loyalties in the European Union, driving some areas such as Catalonia in Spain or Scotland to push harder for independence.

Nearly eight million people are eligible to vote in the Belgian polls, which close at 1400 GMT in the capital Brussels, with the first results under a complicated proportional voting system expected by late evening.

There were some problems with the patchwork introduction of electronic voting as officials reported “technical” difficulties in scores of polling centers related to scanning machines.

EU President Herman Van Rompuy, a former Belgian premier, voted alongside his wife Geertrui Windels-Van Rompuy, a centrist candidate who picked a Flemish nationalist as running mate.

He said as they cast their votes that he was surprised by the “tensions” across the linguistic divide on his doorstep.

De Wever's New Flemish Alliance (NV-A) is seeking to win the northern city of Antwerp, where the rival Socialists have been in power for 90 years.

“If we can take Antwerp, then we are waking up in a different country,” De Wever told AFP in a recent interview. He is bidding for a six-year mandate and to unseat Socialist rival Patrick Janssens after a decade in City Hall.

He has said he wants 2014 to mark the start of a new “confederal” structure for the country.

“Antwerp is without doubt the key,” said political analyst Dave Sinardet.

If De Wever wins there, it could destabilize the fragile political consensus which allowed the Socialist Party of Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo to finally form a government in December 2011 after some 500 days of bitter haggling.

Since then, the governing coalition of six parties from the left, center and right has held.

But a breakthrough in Antwerp for the N-VA could spell a constitutional headache, especially since De Wever regards the central government as “illegitimate.”

Recent opinion polls gave the N-VA up to 40 percent — compared with just 5 percent in the last local vote six years ago — but the Socialists may do as well, especially in their southern strongholds, making coalitions the most likely outcome, as at the national level.

De Wever himself has described the vote as “do-or-die,” and his victory would raise fundamental questions about Belgium's future as a united state.

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Bart De Wever prepares to cast his vote at a polling station in Antwerp during the Belgian municipal and provincial elections on Sunday, Oct. 14. (AFP)

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