Who to watch in Belgium elections

Belgium goes into national and regional elections Sunday as culturally and politically divided as ever between its Flemish-speaking north and French-language south.

Brussels: Belgium goes into national and regional elections Sunday as culturally and politically divided as ever between its Flemish-speaking north and French-language south.

The outcome turns largely on how four main personalities fare because they are key to future talks on forming a new coalition government.

After the 2010 elections, it took a world record 500 days and more for the politicians to finally find enough common ground to form a government.

Here are the major players:

Elio Di Rupo, outgoing prime minister

At 62, the Francophone Socialist Di Rupo took office in December 2011 and is widely credited with holding the coalition government together through a very damaging economic slump and subsequent eurozone debt crisis.

Campaigning hard to continue as premier, Di Rupo`s government pushed through painful savings of 22 billion euros in an effort to stabilise Belgium`s strained public finances. Di Rupo tried to limit the pain of the austerity policies for the least well-off but cuts to unemployment benefits were unpopular and could see the extreme left PTB party take votes from his Socialists in the south. On the right, the immediate danger comes from the centre-right Liberal Movement for Reform (MR), which includes his foreign minister Didier Reynders.

Di Rupo is a fervent federalist, committed to a united Belgium, and strongly opposed to the neo-Liberal and separatist New Flemish Alliance party (N-VA) of Bart De Wever.

Bart De Wever, Flemish nationalist leader

The most popular and powerful of the Flemish politicians, De Wever makes no bones about wanting even more autonomy if not outright separation for the northern half of the country. Di Rupo is his constant target as champion of discredited and wasteful Socialist policies which the wealthier Flemish north has to help pay for.

De Wever, 43, won the mayor`s office in Antwerp, Belgium`s economic heart, in 2012, ousting a Socialist administration which had ruled the city and major port for years. Kingmaker in 2010 when the party was the single largest in Parliament, De Wever again insists the N-VA must have a say in forming a government, which this time should clearly be to the right.

Virtually assured of being the single biggest party in the north, he is hoping to top the symbolic 30 percent vote level to bolster his national position. His weakness is that Flemish parties on his left may prefer to deal with Di Rupo again, as they eventually did after the 2010 polls when they joined the coalition. Winning over his Francophone opponents so that he could head a new coalition government himself looks to be a tall order given the hostility he inspires among many of them.

Didier Reynders, outgoing foreign minister

Finance minister for 10 years, now foreign minister and a leading figure in the centre-right MR, Reynders is hoping to make inroads against the Socialists in Brussels and southern Belgium.

To put him on the defensive, they have highlighted MR economic policy and what they claim are its similarities with that of the N-VA. In response, Reynders, 55, has had to assure voters he wants only "to join a government without the N-VA".

Kris Peeters, head of the Flemish regional government

Peeters, 52, comes from the traditional Christian Democrat (CD&V) camp and is the only Flemish politician to come close to matching De Wever. Head of the Flanders regional government since 2007, Peeters insists he wants only to retain that post and has no national ambitions. His default position has been to cooperate with the N-VA but as De Wever`s party has made inroads into his fiefdom, Peeters has become more guarded. The CD&V is aiming for 20 percent of the vote in Flanders to keep it within sight of the N-VA.

If it can meet that target, then it should be in a strong position in the inevitable post-election horse trading. Joining forces with De Wever in a `Flemish Front` is one option. If Peeters decides instead to go with the Flemish Liberals and Socialists, that should improve Di Rupo`s chances of building a new federal coalition.

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