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Voters ponder Belgian break-up as polls open

Belgians are going to the polls today in general elections that are widely seen as a vote on an orderly break-up of a country where 6.5 million Dutch and four million French-speakers are locked in a quarrelsome union.

Polls predicted a solid showing for a mainstream Flemish party whose leader wants Dutch-speaking Flanders to sever its unhappy ties with Francophone Wallonia and, in time, join the European Union as a separate country.

This is a nightmare scenario for poorer Wallonia, which greatly depends on Flemish funds, and shows how linguistic disputes dominate national politics in Belgium.

Voting is mandatory, and some 7.7 million Belgians are due to cast ballots at 10,630 voting stations.

Elections were called one year early after Premier Yves Leterme's five-party coalition fell apart April 26 in a dispute over a bilingual voting district.

That spat has gone unresolved since 2003 and pushed the New Flemish Alliance - a tiny, centrist party only a few years ago - into pole position. It is forecast to win a quarter of the vote in Flanders.

Its leader - and perhaps Belgium's next premier - Bart de Wever, 39, wants an orderly break-up of Belgium by shifting the national government's last remaining powers, notably justice, health and social security, to Flanders and Wallonia. That would complete 30 years of ever greater self-rule for the two regions.

The new Flemish alliance wants Flanders to join the EU. There are no comparable separatist sentiments in Wallonia.