Election 2010: Belgium decides

Voting is underway in the 2010 General Election. The electorate is being called upon to elect a new Chamber of Representatives and Senate.

Voting is compulsory in Belgium and in all 7,726,632 Belgians are expected to attend a polling place usually located in a school or cultural centre. Voters will elect the 150 members of the Chamber of Representatives and the 40 directly-elected members of the Senate.

Any Belgian Federal Government must command a majority in Parliament, but not necessarily in each language group.

The outgoing federal administration was a coalition of Flemish and Francophone Christian democrats and liberals plus the Francophone socialist party.

These are early elections and come a year ahead of schedule. They were triggered by the Flemish liberal Open VLD party that walked out of the Federal Government in protest against the failure to find a solution to the contentious BHV issue.

BHV is the Brussels Halle Vilvoorde constituency, the only one that includes voters from both sides of the linguistic divide. All Flemish parties support the splitting of the constituency, but this is being blocked by Francophone politicians.

Across Belgium voting for the lower house is held in province-wide multi-member constituencies. Only in Leuven and Brussels - Halle - Vilvoorde is the constituency smaller.

For the Senate there is a Flemish and a Francophone constituency with voters in BHV deciding for themselves whether to cast their vote for Flemish or Francophone politicians.

Polling stations with voting by computer stay open until 3 PM. Where ballots are cast using a ballot form and a red pencil stations are open till 1 PM. Forty-four percent of voters will be able to use a computer, while the rest of us will have to struggle with red pencil and paper.

Belgium's using the D'hondt system of proportional representation for the Chamber of Representatives. This strengthens the representation of larger politcal parties.

Attending a polling station is compulsory and you could be fined if you do not do so, but voters have the freedom to choose to cast a blank ballot even when voting by computer.

Belgians have a wide variety of parties to choose from. The parties are usually organised separately in the two parts of the country. In Brussels voters have a choice from both Flemish and Francophone parties.

The 2010 poll could be historic. Commentators suggest that the Francopohone socialist Elio Di Rupo stands a fair chance of becoming Federal Premier and he would be the first Francophone to fill the post since 1974.

And the result?

Pollsters have often had a difficult job forecasting election results in Belgium. For what it's worth this time round they are predicting that the Flemish nationalists of N-VA will become the largest political party in Flanders and possibly in the whole of Belgium. The nationalists support Flemish independence and see a confederal model as a staging post to this objective. In this set up, the two confederated states each decide for themselves what they still want to do together.

A big win for Bart De Wever's N-VA will probably be bad news for the Flemish Christian democrats that fought the last election in an alliance with the nationalists.

Among the main options in Flanders voters could go for either of the two liberal parties, vote socialist or for the far left or the far right. The ecologists too are fielding candidates.

Whatever the outcome, Belgium will have to be governed by a coalition so that, at the end of the day, all parties will have to make policy concessions, if they want to enter government.

The election is also a major organisational headache. Over 101,000 people are involved in the organisation of the election: civil servants from the Interior Ministry, magistrates as well as citizens called upon to man polling stations.

Democracy also has a price. 8.7 billion euros was spent on last year's regional and European elections. The General Election is expected to cost a similar amount.