Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt
hopes to retain power

Opinion polls suggest that incumbent Liberal Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, is in a tight race with Stefaan De Clerck of the Christian Democrats.

Verhofstadt is hoping to win a second term in office after four years at the head of a six-party rainbow coalition. The Christian Democrats were kicked out of office in 1999 after a series of scandals.

There are nine major parties contesting the polls and none of them has overwhelming support.

Despite the close-run race, it is the performance of the far-right Flemish nationalist party, Vlaams Blok, that is receiving much attention.

The anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim party which campaigns against multiculturalism could see another surge in support in the northern part of the country.

By also calling for the independence of Flanders, Vlaams Blok also plays on the linguistic difference in Belgium between its Flemish north and French south. Most parties are similarly split on linguistic lines, but governments must represent both linguistic groups.

In the 1999 general elections Vlaams Blok gained 15% per cent of the vote in Flanders and opinion polls are forecasting it will do even better this time round.

The party has enlisted former beauty queen Anke Vandermeersch as a Senate candidate to help improve their image, but their policies remain the same.

"We still are very much against the multicultural society. We need people who immigrate here to adapt. If they don't adapt to our systems, to our laws, to our values, they should go back to where they came from," said Vandermeersch.

Backroom politics

The outgoing coalition between Verhofstadt's free-market Liberals, the Socialists and the Greens has been fractious, but it has brought changes to a once socially conservative country - legalising homosexual marriages, euthanasia and decriminalising cannabis.

Verhofstadt says Belgium's economy has performed well in comparison with other European countries, but unemployment remains high.

Casting ballots is mandatory for the country's 7.5 million voters. Polling stations closed 1100GMT for paper voting and 1500 for electronic voting. Results are expected after 1800 on Sunday.