A party that wants to split Belgium won the most votes in a parliamentary election on Sunday, an outcome that could make it hard to form a coalition quickly and deliver austerity to contain a rising national debt.
Belgium can ill afford drawn-out coalition talks because policy paralysis could make the country more vulnerable on financial markets that are closely watching a sovereign debt crisis among the 16 countries that use the euro.
The Flemish N-VA (New Flemish Alliance) was set to be the largest party in Dutch-speaking Flanders and in all Belgium, narrowly ahead of the French-speaking Socialists, results showed after 86 percent of the votes had been counted.
"The N-VA has won the election today," N-VA leader Bart De Wever, 39, told cheering, flag-waving supporters who burst into a rendition of the Flemish national anthem.
The Interior Ministry projected the N-VA would win 28 of the 150 seats in the lower house of parliament, compared to just eight now. It forecast heavy losses for the Christian Democrats and the liberals, former partners in government.
The N-VA advocates Belgium's step-by-step dissolution, with Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia going their separate ways.
The French-speaking Socialists (PS) were expected to gain five seats to have 25 overall. Together with the Flemish socialists, they would form the largest group in parliament, meaning PS leader Elio Di Rupo could be the next prime minister.
De Wever is reluctant to be leader of a united Belgium, and has said he is open to the idea of a first French-speaking premier since 1974 if that would bring more powers to Flanders.
"You don't have to like each other to work together," he said.
The election is the first federal vote from which a party advocating the end of Belgium has won the most votes.
Even if the N-VA is confirmed as the leading party in the country of 10.6 million people, which hosts the headquarters of the European Union and the Nato military alliance, it will not be able to start devolving powers to the regions immediately.
Four parties needed to govern
"Belgium is not about to split up, but it is set for a reorganization," said Professor Marc Swyngedouw of the Catholic University of Leuven.
The electoral system -- effectively two elections with separate parties seeking votes from French-speakers and the majority Dutch-speakers -- means at least four parties will be needed to form a governing coalition.
The N-VA's lead in polls triggered a nationwide debate about the possible break-up of the 180-year-old nation, with richer Flanders splitting from Wallonia, where unemployment is about double the national average.
Parties from poorer French-speaking regions see devolution as a step toward Belgium's break-up, which they oppose, but all have said they would consider some reform of the state.
Yves Leterme, the Christian Democrat who won the 2007 election on a pledge to win more powers for Flanders, took nine months to form his five-party government.
Economists say Belgium cannot afford long coalition talks, with a debt-to-GDP ratio set to exceed 100 percent this year or next, the third highest level in Europe behind Greece and Italy.
ING economist Philippe Ledent said it was important to get a coalition in place by September, adding: "After September, the reaction of the financial markets would lead to difficult consequences for the Belgian economy.
Etienne de Callatay, economist at Bank Degroof, said months of talks would delay austerity moves and put Belgium "behind other (euro zone) countries in regard to structural reform."
Belgium also takes on the six-month presidency of the European Union on July 1, an organisational role that gives a country a chance to shine on the world stage.
Some analysts said the economic risks and the embarrassment of political fighting while Belgium holds the EU presidency could spur party chiefs to agree more quickly than expected.
"This will give them the incentive to take the initiative and not delay," said Tony Valcke, a political scientist at the University of Ghent.