You’d think that Miss Belgium winner Alizee Poulicek, who speaks French, English and Czech, would be considered more than linguistically qualified to represent her country. But when the 20year-old couldn’t understand a question asked in Dutch during the competition, the audience was quick to boo, echoing a sense of unrest in the country that runs far deeper than a beauty pageant. The divide between Belgium’s Dutch-speaking Flemish and Frenchspeaking Walloon populations has caused strife ever since the small European country declared independence from the Netherlands nearly 180 years ago. With separate newspapers, TV shows and political parties, the six million Flemings and 4-5 million Walloons are more like neighbours than compatriots. But many now worry that divide is threatening the future of their nation—which, despite separatist grumblings, most had considered an unlikely possibility until now.
After Yves Leterme’s Flemish Christian Democrats won more votes than any other party in the June 10 general election, Belgium’s King Albert II charged the party leader with the formidable task of forming a coalition government. Leterme’s proposal to transfer more power to regional governments was opposed by Walloon parties worried about what that would mean for their poorer region’s federal cash flow. That resulted in a monthslong political stalemate that incited 35,000 Dutchand French-speaking Belgians to march in Brussels in November to protest the lack of a government and support unity.
It wasn’t enough to convince the parties to reach an agreement—Leterme resigned earlier this month. The king has now handed over the reins to outgoing PM Guy Verhofstadt to continue daily operations and bring the dichotomous parties together. But with the election fading from memory and no government in sight, Verhofstadt may not have long before Belgium’s motto—“Strength Through Unity”— loses all meaning, no matter in which language it’s spoken. M
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