Flemish nationalists made sweeping gains across northern Belgium in local elections on Sunday, a success that will bolster separatists’ hopes for a break-up of the country.

Bart De Wever, leader of the New Flemish Alliance (NVA), is set to become mayor of the northern city of Antwerp, Belgium’s economic heartland, after his party emerged as the largest one, ending about 90 years of socialist rule.

Soon after the ballot results were made public, Mr De Wever, who had turned the tough mayoral race into a referendum on Flander’s independence for Belgium, demanded that the country’s prime minister give greater independence to the Dutch-speaking north.

“We want to give Flemish people the government they want at all levels. That is why I call on Elio Di Rupo and the francophone politicians. Take up your responsibility,” said Mr De Wever.

The strong result recorded by the Flemish nationalist is likely to have an impact across Europe, where the sovereign debt crisis, which has seen rich countries bail out poor ones, has revived separatist sentiment throughout the continent.

Flanders, which is the most economically prosperous region of Belgium, has long resented financing the ailing economy of French-speaking Wallonia, and Sunday’s victory will strengthen its demand for self-rule.

Lieven De Winter, a political scientist at Université Catholique de Louvain, said that Mr De Wever’s victory was a clear step forward for separatists who had long been campaigning for secession from the southern part of the country. However, he warned that the process towards accomplishing a break-up would be fraught with problems.

“There is no doubt that tonight De Wever made a small step towards completing his dream of a break-up but there are many obstacles ahead …at the end of the day you need two to tango,” Mr De Winter said.

NVA won about 38 per cent of votes in Antwerp against about 28 per cent secured by the Socialists, according to provisional Flanders government data. Meanwhile, in the rest of the northern region the Flemish nationalists won more than 30 per cent of support.

NVA is expected to seek the support of the Socialists to run Antwerp – in Belgium it is common for opposing parties to form a coalition after elections, as no single party enjoys an outright majority throughout the country.

Belgium has been divided between Dutch-speaking Flanders, francophone Wallonia and Brussels, its bilingual capital. Although several political powers have already been devolved to regional governments, Flanders, which has a population of about 6m people compared with 3.5m in Wallonia, is keen to further deepen the process of separation of powers.

NVA’s victory in Antwerp and strong result across the north of Belgium was likely to give momentum to the separatists in the run-up to key federal elections in 2014, said analysts.

“De Wever sent a strong signal to Brussels and he has put his party on course to send an even clearer one in 2014 …they will try to go for an even bigger win in the federal elections,” said Lex Moolenaar, a veteran political analyst for the Gazet Van Antwerpen, the city’s daily.

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