Belgium votes in election that could split the nation

The flag tugs at the wrought-iron balcony railing as if to reach out to the other tricolore across the road.

Elegant Art Nouveau houses dominate the avenues of Ixelles, this leafy neighbourhood of Brussels, but Belgian flags have also suddenly become a ubiquitous feature in the streetscape. Since the fall of the government in April, the black, red and yellow Belgian flag has been fluttering about window sills and above shop signs.

"When I heard that the government had fallen yet again I was totally shocked and started to worry about the future of this small country of ours," said Ariane, a French-speaking resident. "So I put out the flag to show my concern and to express my sense of belonging to Belgium." Casting a worried glance upward towards the symbol of unity she added: "The problem is that our politicians seem bent on wrecking our country."

Belgians go to the polls tomorrow after an election campaign dominated by heated debates over language rights. The Prime Minister, Yves Leterme, threw in the towel in April after his government failed to resolve a row over how to repartition the "communes" or boroughs around Brussels into new voting districts divided by language lines.

Even though most Belgians can barely grasp the technicalities of this issue and are more concerned about their country's ballooning public debt, it has helped to fuel demands by Flemish nationalists for more autonomy.

The debate has been fanned by the partisan media, says Ariane, who says that she has stopped all her newspaper subscriptions. "The media is only making matters worse by taking extreme positions. I know many people who don't even watch TV anymore because of it."

The Flemish, who make up 40 per cent of the 10 million population, were for over a century the poor relation of the independent kingdom of Belgium, created in 1831. But as Wallonia's star as the nation's heavy industrial powerhouse waned, in recent decades Flanders began to outstrip its French-speaking neighbours economically.

Bart de Wever, leader of the Flemish N-VA Party, is set to win the most votes tomorrow standing on a platform of major reform of the state including economic autonomy for Flanders. One in four Flemish voters plans to support him according to polls, his reward for tapping divisively into popular sentiment that taxpayers are being milked dry to prop up the French-speaking Walloons.

The Walloons, meanwhile, accuse the Flemish of lack of solidarity, reminding them sharply of all those years when the tables were turned and Flanders was but an agricultural backwater. "We've had to keep fighting, not with weapons but with words, just to have the right to speak our own language. And now it's time for change," Mr de Wever told the international press this week "We don't want a revolution, we are a very European party. But we do want an evolution for Flanders."

The Belgian capital is caught in the eye of the storm. It lies geographically in Flanders but is predominantly French-speaking and represents 20 per cent of the nation's GDP. For Eric Vanwindekens, a pharmacist who has hung a particularly large flag from his balcony, Brussels is one of the main reasons for Belgium not to adopt a Czech- and Slovak-style divorce.

"It is not feasible to split this city; it's a big melting pot of a city and the heart of Belgium and of the EU. And the truth is that we basically do want to stay together, and I think both communities share that desire, even if our politicians do not," said Mr Vanwindekens.

But many Belgians are also losing the will to fight. Back in 2007, during the first major government crisis, thousands came out on the streets to demonstrate for their nation's survival. Today, the flags adorn just the façades of the French-speaking parts of the country and are nowhere to be seen in Flanders. "People are getting tired of this, it is true. That's why you see fewer flags. But I also think the silent majority and most Belgians simply want to stay together and do not side with the extreme positions taken up by the nationalists," says Rohnny Buyens, a Fleming who lives in Brussels.

"People want to show solidarity for a nation, but it is a nation that no longer exists," adds Philippe van Parijs, a political philosopher at the Catholic University of Louvain. "There was a Belgian nation in the 19th century when the élite spoke French. But then we recognised both national languages and put them on the same footing, and since then we've had two increasingly different public opinions."

"I think what we are seeing is the death of a nation." Professor van Parijs is among many leading commentators who believe that Belgium will eventually become a confederation. "You would have four regions: Flanders, Wallonia, Brussels and the German- speaking region. It is inevitable now; the question is how to work it all out."

Asked about how they feel about their shared future, Belgians might give different answers but most will say that, on a personal level, they coexist perfectly well. But their feelings no longer seem to matter in this debate.