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New Belgian cabinet ends political deadlock

Latest update : 2008-03-21

Flemish Christian Democrat Yves Leterme took over as Belgian prime minister, ending nine months of deadlock that had prompted speculation the country could break apart. (Report: M.MacCarthy)

Belgium's new government was finally sworn in Thursday more than nine months after elections, closing a troubling chapter in a political crisis that could yet resurface in a few months.
   
Flemish Christian Democrat Yves Leterme and his 15-member cabinet gave the oath of office to King Albert II in a ceremony at the royal palace, a move Belgians have been waiting for since June 10.
   
"Our country, Belgium, remains a country where it is good to live and which has plenty of things of which we can be proud," Leterme, 47, told parliament later, as he sought to win the confidence of both houses.
   
But, he said, the kingdom can "only hope to have a prosperous future if it is ready for change."
   
The confidence vote will officially be handed down on Saturday.
   
Belgium's political crisis had turned on how much federal power should be devolved to the regions, with parties in the more populous and prosperous Dutch-speaking region of Flanders demanding more control over regional affairs.
   
The five parties making up the new coalition -- three of them French-speaking formations and two from Flanders -- finally sealed overnight an agreement on how to share the portfolios.
   
Seven women will be part of the government, which largely resembles the interim cabinet led by Guy Verhofstadt, who had pledged to step down, come what may, by March 20.
   
The new cabinet list, endorsed by the king, retains Karel De Gucht and Patrick De Wael as foreign and interior ministers respectively.
   
Pieter De Crem and Jo Vandeurzen will keep the defence and justice portfolios, while Didier Reynders will remain finance minister and Laurette Onkelinx health minister.
   
Francophone centrist leader Joelle Milquet -- known in Flanders as "Madame No" for her hardline in governmental negotiations -- is the new face, taking on the role of employment and equal opportunities minister.
   
A key task now will be to agree by July on how to devolve powers to the regions, although a series of other issues -- some left unresolved during the months-long search for a compromise -- will also have to be addressed.
   
Observers had said that the current team has lacked cohesion and questions have been raised about whether the new cabinet, which is essentially the same, will last a year.
   
According to a survey made public Wednesday for RTL-TVI/VTM television, 63 percent of Belgians do "not have confidence" in the new government. More than half of those questioned believe it will collapse by mid-2008.
   
Dutch-speakers make up about 60 percent of Belgium's 10.5 million population. They live predominantly in Flanders, once the poorer half of Belgium but now one of the most dynamic corners of western Europe.
   
The Francophones -- living mainly in Wallonia and the officially bilingual Brussels capital region and making up almost 40 percent of residents -- fear that handing down too much power could lead to the breakup of the country.
   
Belgium also has a small German-speaking minority.
   
Language differences -- and each community's insistence that they be able to communicate in their own tongue -- are a regular source of tension in Belgium.
   
Leterme -- who once confused Belgium's anthem with that of France and failed in two previous attempts to form a government -- fuelled inter-communal anger in 2006 by suggesting that French speakers were not capable of learning Dutch.

Date created : 2008-03-20

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