Election 2010: Titans clash!

A week before the General Election the Flemish public broadcaster VRT staged its big leaders' debate. Taking part were the leaders of the seven big Flemish political parties that are hoping to pick up Belgians' votes on 13 June.

The debate focused on six important issues.

The sparring between the two former alliance partners, the Flemish nationalist N-VA and the Christian democrat CD&V, created the greatest excitement in the television studio.

Three years after their joint election victory the two parties disagree on the past and on the future.

Flemish Christian democrat leader Marianne Thyssen is a greater supporter of maintaining a federal social security system, though she believes the Flemish region should have more powers in fields like health care and the labour market. N-VA leader Bart De Wever favours a Flemish pension system. This is rejected by the Christian democrats.

Mr De Wever accused the Christian democrats of speaking with two voices and of negotiating for ages without reaching any results. There was one exception the sale of Fortis Bank to BNP Paribas, "a panic reaction".

Ms Thyssen accused the N-VA of walking out on people by quitting the Federal Government in 2008.

Energy but from where?

Vlaams Belang supremo Filip Dewinter (far right) voiced his support for nuclear energy and a fourth nuclear power plant: "the greenest and cheapest source of energy".

Ecologist leader Wouter Van Besien (Groen! - photo) rejected this suggesting renewable energy could create more jobs as well as technological progress.

Groen! blamed Belgium's high consumer energy prices on the monopoly enjoyed by Suez Electrabel, while Mr Dewinter came out in support of a state energy company.

Savings?

Flemish socialist leader Caroline Gennez and the Christian democrats' Marianne Thyssen agree on the need to save 22.5 billion and a balanced budget.

They differ on much of the rest.

The socialists say that labour is taxed sufficiently at the moment and support a wealth tax.

Ms Thyssen wants to encourage Belgium's social partners to implement wage restraint.

She believes creating more jobs is more important than higher wages.

Apart from the socialists all parties reject a wealth tax as this would hit the middle classes and the very rich will simply take their fortune out of the country.

A safer country?

The far right wants to channel greater funds to the judicial system: "Criminals should live in fear not ordinary citizens."

Vlaams Belang support more police out on the beat, zero tolerance to crime and more means for public prosecutor's offices.

The right-wing liberal Lijst Dedecker says that the justice budget should be spent more efficiently. Mr Dedecker pointed to ankle tagging, a system that is three times cheaper than putting people in gaol. He is also a supporter of greater guidance for young offenders.

Far right supremo Filip Dewinter added that offenders of foreign descent should have their Belgian nationality revoked and be made to serve their sentence abroad.

Both the Vlaams Belang and the right wing liberals favour greater screening of immigrants and the creation of an immigration police.

Keeping pensions affordable

Socialist leader Gennez believes that the next government should take action. The SP.A favours higher pensions for people who work longer and for those who have low pensions.

The liberals of Open VLD support a real retirement age of 63, a measure that also has the support of the socialists. At present the average retirement age is 59.

The two parties differ on the length of time people should have to be in work in order to enjoy full pension rights: 40 years for the SP.A and 45 for the Open VLD.

Political credibility

Who enjoys greater credibility with the electorate, the Open VLD that left the government and triggered early elections or the Christian democrats who stayed in the hope of settling community differences? Open VLD leader Alexander De Croo likened the Christian democrats to the orchestra playing on the deck of the Titanic.

Both parties insist that the time for empty promises is far behind us and that people now expect real action. They also don't mind the electorate getting the message that cuts will be needed.

Mr De Croo said:"I'm convinced everybody will understand we have a future, but only if everybody contributes." Open VLD believes politicians should give the good example by accepting a crisis tax of their own and the abolition of the Senate.