The Flemish party Vlaams Belang has become the second largest political party in Flanders, the northern part of Belgium
After two four-year terms, Verhofstadt’s Flemish Liberal Democratic party trailed in third place with 18.5 percent of the vote behind the “Vlaams Belang”, or Flemish Interests party, with 19.1 percent of the vote.
But despite its position, Vlaams Belang, which wants Flanders to be independent, will probably not be included in any coalition government because other parties have agreed to shun the extreme-right party.
Vlaams Belang is particularly strong in the northern city of Antwerp where 18,000 Jews are living.
Belgian voters handed a stinging defeat to Verhofstadt, taking a big step towards a change of government.
The centre-right Flemish Christian Democrats and their small nationalist allies N-VA were poised to determine a key role in the next government after they came out on top in the Flanders region with 30.5 percent of the vote.
46-year-old Christian Democrat party leader Yves Leterme is likely to replace Verhofstadt as Belgium’s Prime Minister.
Since no party fields candidates in both of Belgium’s two main regions, winning in Flanders, where 60 percent of the population live, is key to national success.
Acknowledging the defeat of his Flemish Liberal Democrats, Verhofstadt said at his party headquarters: "The results are clear. Voters have opted for another majority than the one that has governed the country over the last eight years."
In the French-speaking southern region of Wallonia, results showed the Socialist party losing ground although it was still in first place with 31-32 percent of the vote, while the Reform Movement (MR) was second, credited with 28 percent.
The two parties were partners in Verhofstadt’s four-party coalition, which included his Liberal Democrats and Flemish Socialists, which won 15.5 percent of the vote in Flanders.
After stirring past tensions with French-speakers in Wallonia, Leterme was quick to raise the sensitive issue of devolving more powers to the regions, which Wallons fear could be a prelude to breaking up the country.
"Belgium is a country built on a historic compromise between two big (language) communities and that has to be respected, the country and its institutions need to function," he said shortly after his party’s election victory.
Flanders parties are demanding wider political powers, and notably want to manage their own employment policy, which is currently in the hands of the federal government.
They are trying to capitalise on the widespread belief in Flanders, where unemployment is low, that Flemish taxpayers foot the bill for unemployment benefits in Wallonia, where joblessness is a huge problem.
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