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Separatists win Belgian election

A separatist party that advocates independence for the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium, leaving the country's Francophones to fend for themselves, scored an unprecedented win in the general election.

Final results gave the Dutch-speaking New Flemish Alliance - a fringe factor until now - 27 of the 150 legislative seats, up 19 from the 2007 vote.

The election outcome was seen as a clear warning to Francophones to negotiate seriously about granting Dutch and French speakers more self-rule, or Dutch speakers will leave.

The New Flemish Alliance drew votes away from Premier Yves Leterme's outgoing coalition of Christian Democrats, Liberals and Socialists - all split into Dutch and French-speaking factions - whose three years in office were marked by enduring linguistic spats that remained unresolved. The Alliance's success marked the first time a Flemish nationalist movement overtook traditional parties.

Belgium comprises Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south. Brussels, the officially bilingual but largely Francophone capital, is a third region. Just about everything in Belgium - from political parties to broadcasters to boy scouts and voting ballots - comes in both Dutch and French-speaking versions.

Even charities such as the Red Cross and Amnesty International have separate chapters. Bart De Wever, 39, leader of the New Flemish Alliance, urged "Francophones to make (a country) that works." In the election campaign, he accused economically backward Wallonia of bad governance, immunity to reforms and opposition to the Flemish desire for more self-rule.

But if De Wever becomes premier of this country of 6.5 million Dutch and 4 million French speakers, he will head a coalition government that will inevitably force him to tone down his independence talk and negotiate for more regional self rule within Belgium.

True to tradition, the big winners in Wallonia were the Socialists who won 26 seats, up six. Their leader, Elio di Rupo, also a would-be premier, said: "Many Flemish people want the country's institutions reformed. We need to listen to that."

King Albert is now expected to begin talks with key politicians on what sort of government can be formed.

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