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Belguim's Ruling Liberal-Socialist Coalition Ahead in National Elections - 2003-05-18

The ruling Liberal-Socialist coalition appears on course for a new term, according to early results from Belgium's general election. But preliminary results also show gains for the conservative Christian Democrats.

More than seven million Belgians are passing judgment on the record of Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and his five-party coalition.

Mr. Verhofstadt's government is generally given good marks for lowering taxes and balancing the budget over its four-year term. And it has adopted some of the most progressive social legislation in Europe, legalizing same-sex marriages and euthanasia, and decriminalizing the use of cannabis.

But the prime minister is also strongly criticized by the conservative Christian Democratic opposition for damaging relations with the United States because of his government's fierce opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Belgium joined France and Germany in temporarily blocking efforts to send NATO assets to bolster Turkey's defense before the war. It also incurred American anger by pressing for a European military initiative aimed at making the continent's defense less reliant on the United States.

Those moves, which capitalized on strong anti-war sentiment in tiny, linguistically divided Belgium, were seen by conservatives and most independent observers as blatant electioneering by the government.

There are no federal parties in Belgium, so all eyes are on how well Mr. Verhofstadt's Flemish liberals do in Flanders, the northern, more populous, Dutch-speaking part of the country.

Hovering in the background are the Flemish nationalists. They gained 15 percent of the national vote in the last elections four years ago and are hoping for as much as 20 percent this time.

The nationalists want to halt immigration and crack down on rising crime, which they link to immigrants. They also advocate independence for Flanders.

As a result, they have been excluded from political coalitions at local, regional, and national levels because other parties refuse to deal with them.