BRUSSELS - A separatist party that advocates independence for the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium and leaving the country's French speakers to themselves headed for an unprecedented win in Sunday's general election.

With almost 80 percent of votes counted, the Interior Ministry predicted the Dutch-speaking New Flemish Alliance - on the fringe until now - would take 31 of the 150 legislative seats, a gain of 23, and push the long-dominant Christian Democrats into second place.

The outcome was seen as a warning to Francophone politicians to negotiate seriously about greater regionalizing of economic and other responsibilities or risk a push for independence by the Dutch speakers. The current system provides greater economic benefits, such as social security, to the less wealthy French-speaking south.

The New Flemish Alliance drew votes away from Premier Yves Leterme's outgoing coalition of Christian Democrats, Liberals, and Socialists - each split into Dutch- and French-speaking factions - whose three years in office were marked by unresolved linguistic spats.

The alliance's success marked the first time a Flemish nationalist movement has overtaken traditional parties.

Belgium, which became independent from the Netherlands in 1830, consists of Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south. The bilingual capital of Brussels is a third region.

Just about everything in the country - political parties, broadcasters, Boy Scouts - comes in Dutch- and French-speaking versions. Even charities such as the Red Cross have separate chapters.

Bart De Wever, 39, leader of the New Flemish Alliance, urged "Francophones to make [a country] that works."

Flanders has half the unemployment of Wallonia and a 25 percent higher per-capita income, and its politicians are tired of subsidizing their Francophone neighbors.

But if De Wever is invited by King Albert to become premier of Belgium's 6.5 million Dutch speakers and 4 million French speakers, he will head a coalition that will inevitably force him to tone down his independence talk and settle for more regional self-rule.