BRUSSELS (AP) — Early results from Belgian municipal elections Sunday showed widespread gains for a separatist party that is seeking autonomy for the wealthy Dutch-speaking region of northern Flanders.
Bart De Wever of the NV-A party wants to become mayor of Antwerp and use the second biggest port city in Europe as a base for a bigger challenge for Flemish separatism during national elections in 2014.
De Wever has been at odds with Belgium's economically ailing French-speaking Wallonia for years, saying he is fighting over the fate of the 6 million Flemings in the kingdom of 11 million.
With 20 percent of the vote counted, De Wever was leading Antwerp's incumbent Socialist mayor Patrick Janssens 38 percent to 28 percent.
De Wever has made it no secret he is looking for national impact during the municipal elections. He has criticized French-speaking socialist Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo over tax policies he says tap too much money from Flanders.
In municipal elections six years ago, the NV-A was a nascent party with few votes across northern Flanders, but by 2010 national elections it had become the biggest party in the region.
De Wever was the main reason that Belgium had the longest period without a government on record — at 541 days — because he sought extensive concessions for Flemish autonomy.
He failed and ended up in opposition against Di Rupo, a staunch defender of the Belgian nation-state.
While De Wever's NV-A surged on Sunday, the extremist anti-foreigner Flemish Interest party crashed.
"We saw our voters flee to the NV-A," said Flemish Interest lawmaker Gerolf Annemans.
Moves toward separatism in the European Union have been getting a bigger stage during the continent's economic crisis. Spain's Catalonia is grousing that it has to pay for others in its crisis-hit country, and Scotland is seeking a referendum on breaking away from the United Kingdom.