Rarely has the choice for Belgian voters been more clearly defined. When they go to the polls for Sunday's parliamentary elections, they will decide whether to back the belt-tightening policies of the present government for another term or to call for a change, allowing the Socialists a share of government power once again.
Uppermost in the minds of the voters will be the country's economy. Unemployment stands at 13.7 percent and there has been a sharp drop in the standard of living since the present government took office in 1981.
The economy is the ``main preoccupation today,'' says Socialist Party leader Karel van Miert. ``There's no question about it.''
Most analysts believe that economic issues have pushed other voter concerns aside in this election. For instance, they have swept under the carpet the deep-seated social and cultural differences that divide this country of almost 10 million people into two linguistically distinct regions that are often at odds -- Dutch-speaking Flanders in the northern half of the country and French-speaking Wallonia in the south.
``Circumstances have forced people to care more about their [standard of] living than about the way they live with others,'' says former Foreign Minister Henri Simonet. ``The kind of friction [Belgium once experienced over linguistic issues] was a luxury we could afford when things were going well. But now, with the economy in such poor shape, we cannot.''
In an interview, Prime Minister Wilfried Martens says ``there was no real crisis for our people [during the '70s]. But that is no longer the case,'' he admits. ``The crisis today is very painful indeed.''
Still, Belgium's economic situation has improved on several fronts since the Martens government took office four years ago. The inflation rate has fallen steadily (to 4.7 percent today), corporate profits have risen, and public spending has slowed. The unemployment rate, while still high, has leveled off.
This election is being fought principally among the three political ``families'' which have dominated Belgian politics since the war -- the Christian Democrats, the right-of center liberals, and the Socialists. All three families include both French- and Dutch-speaking parties.
In the country's last general election, in 1981, the four parties which make up the present coalition government won a majority in the Chamber of Representatives (113 of 212 seats). Martens, of the Christian Democratic family, who had headed four previous governments (all with Socialist participation) from 1979 to 1981, was asked to form a new government. This time the Socialists were excluded. And the formula worked: This government has served longer than any other Belgian government since 1965. Only t wo governments out of 32 since the end of World War II have held office longer.
The latest opinion polls, however, show that the Socialists could pick up as many as 11 seats in the parliamentary elections, while the four coalition partners could lose as many as 10, leaving the coalition four seats short of a majority, and enabling the Socialists to take the initiative in forming a new government.
Even if the Socialists perform well in next Sunday's election, however, few analysts believe that they would be easily accommodated in power over the long haul. The Christian Social Party and the liberals have ruled out serving with the Socialists. And Martens's Christian People's Party have said they would go into opposition before serving in a government that turned away from the policies pursued by the present government.
Prime Minister Martens believes that in order to complete the work begun four years ago, his policy of ``economic recovery'' must be applied for several more years.
Martens's critics, however -- especially the Socialists -- say he has had enough time. They say his government's austerity program, which has led to a drop in buying power of more than 15 percent since 1981, has made matters much worse for the man in the street.
``It is difficult to find another European country,'' says Socialist leader van Miert, ``where so much has been asked of the people for so little in return.''
Socialist Party economists argue that the country's improved economic picture can be attributed to the general improvement in the world economy over the past four years.
Political analysts believe that the outcome of the election will be close, hinging on a large percentage of uncommitted voters.