Verhofstadt: boost for
modernisation

Media forecasts say the main ruling coalition partners, the Liberals and Socialists, will hold 93 of the 150 seats in parliament.

 

The 50-year-old Verhofstadt said the government had emerged stronger from this election. "The voters have given us the mandate today to continue our work of modernisation and change in this country in the next few years," he said.

    

With Belgium's economic growth sluggish and unemployment high, Verhofstadt has vowed to keep cutting taxes and to reform state bureaucracy and an overburdened judiciary.

   

The Socialists made their strongest advance in recent years, but were unlikely to overtake Verhofstadt's Flemish Liberals as the largest party in the northern area of Flanders. Belgium has not had a Socialist-led government since 1974.

 

Opposition concedes defeat

 

Opposition Flemish Christian Democratic leader Stefaan de Clerck conceded defeat in a TV interview, congratulating the Socialists on their big gains.

   

The Vlaams Blok, which has ties with French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, looked set to add several percentage points to the 15.4 percent it won in 1999 in Flanders.

   

Support for the rightist movement, which campaigned for zero tolerance on crime and ending immigration, spread from its urban stronghold into rural areas. "This is a very important victory for the Vlaams Blok," said party leader Filip Dewinter.

   

But Belgium will not follow Austria by bringing a far-right party into a ruling coalition - all mainstream parties refuse to deal with the Vlaams Blok, branding it racist and xenophobic.

   

Verhofstadt's Flemish Liberals improved slightly on their previous score, while the environmentalist Greens, the third member of the coalition, suffered devastating losses.

   

The strong showing for the Vlaams Blok was a moral blow to Verhofstadt. He had challenged Belgians when he took office in 1999 to judge his performance by the Blok party’s popularity.

   

Belgian political parties are organised along linguistic lines and obliged to form coalitions with each other to reach a majority.  About 7.6 million Belgians had been expected to vote in a country where apathy has risen despite voting being compulsory.