Brussels — For the fifth time in only 10 years vote-weary Belgian voters will trudge to the polls Sunday to vote in a new government burdened with two grave responsibilities. They are:
1. Whether, in the face of rising public uneasiness, to go ahead and deploy controversial nuclear missiles.
2. To check an unemployment rate that is the highest in the European Community.
This country, which once was in the vanguard of the Industrial Revolution, has seen its mills, mines, and factories close down or disgorge hundreds of thousands of workers who now swell the dole lines and place a disruptive burden on the once-generous social security system.
From the hard-pressed steel plants in Liege or Charleroi to the shipyards in Hoboken, the fabric of society is being put to a severe test by this growing unemployment.
The election campaigning, slogged out during constant autumn downpours, has concentrated almost exclusively on the mounting concerns about alarming national unemployment and budgetary trends and regional animosity that have its two ethnic communities - the Flemings and the Walloons - on the brink of rupture.
Virtually ignored has been the weighty geopolitical decision the next government may have to make on deployment of NATO cruise and Pershing II nuclear missiles.
Belgium is one of five NATO countries that was originally slated to deploy the controversial Pershing and cruise missiles. But Belgium is reportedly wavering as a groundswell of antinuclear demonstrations hits Western Europe.
Two weeks ago between 100,000 and 200,000 placard-carrying antinuclear demonstrators took to the streets of Brussels to protest the nuclear weapons.
Political insiders here have nevertheless indicated that if a right-of-center government emerges from the election, it will push through the missile deployment even in the face of public opinion polls that show more than 60 percent of respondents against the new nuclear installations.
Although the country's 25 political parties have publicly dodged the NATO missile question, they have devoted their energies to proposing formulas to ease the straggering unemployment that has gripped the country for the last several years.
The national election called a few weeks ago following the collapse of the tripartite coalition government of Prime Minister Mark Eyskens is the second in three years and fifth in 10 years.
The economic debate has been largely over continuing financial aid to the country's faltering factories and stringent austerity measures some see as required to pull out of the recession.
This basic clash of economic strategies evident in many other industrialized countries is made more dramatic here because it is intimately linked to the age-old split between its Dutch-speaking population in Flanders and French-speakers in Wallonia.
The main advocates of economic stringency are the Flemish Social Christian Party, which has dominated the political scene in recent years, while the Wallonian Socialist Party is demanding forceful government stimulation measures. The economic situation has reached a state where international organizations such as the European Community and the International Monetary Fund have shown their concern.
With the European Community's highest unemployment rate - between 11 and 12 percent of the work force - both sides are becoming more strident about the need for action on their particular brand of remedies, which they blame the other side for blocking. The result is a growing polarization of political and ethnic activists in the country.
There seems to be more and more support in all parts of the country for greater regional autonomy or even outright separatism as a way out of the continuing economic and political stalemate.