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Belgium in crisis following PM resignation offer

Latest update : 2008-07-16

Belgium's future hung in the balance Tuesday as King Albert II considered whether to let his prime minister resign over his failure to bridge the gulf between the country's two linguistic communities.


Belgium's future hung in the balance Tuesday as King Albert II considered whether to let his prime minister resign over his failure to bridge the gulf between the country's two linguistic communities.
   
The king, informed by Yves Leterme of his decision overnight, was "weighing" the move, the palace said, and met political leaders from both sides of the political divide as well as parliamentary officials.
   
"It appears that the communities' conflicting visions of how to give a new equilibrium to our state have become incompatible," Leterme said in a statement, after his shock move.
   
But he added that "state reform remains essential", implying that with or without him at the head of government the linguistic community issue would continue to haunt Belgium.
   
It is the third time the 47-year-old Flemish conservative has failed to bridge the deep divisions between Belgium's Flemish and French-speaking communities over whether, and how, to devolve federal powers to them.
   
Leterme had set himself the deadline of July 15 to reconcile the parties from Flanders -- which represents some 60 percent of Belgium's 10.5 million people -- and Wallonia over radical reforms to the federal state.
   
Flanders, Belgium's Dutch-speaking northern half, craves more regional powers to reflect its prosperity. It also resents subsidising the less affluent, French-speaking Wallonia region to its south.
   
Leterme's resignation heralded a new period of uncertainty, just as Belgium appeared to have found some sense of stability following a six-month period in which no government could be formed after June 10 elections last year.
   
Since that crisis, French speakers have agreed to enter into reform talks, realising it was perhaps the only way to stop Belgium breaking up, which almost one in two Flemish speakers want according to a recent opinion poll.
   
French-language parties expressed surprise Tuesday that the premier had given up.
   
"There is a strong willingness among French parties to go deep into these reforms," deputy premier Didier Reynders, who leads the French-speaking Liberals, told Belgian radio.
   
"I think we still have time to find a solution in the hours and next few days within the framework of what we already have," he said. "Otherwise we'll have to look for something else."
   
The question on many minds was what might happen next.
   
The king could flatly refuse to accept Leterme's resignation -- the premier only took office in March -- and demand that he stay on, either in his current capacity or with a fixed and limited mandate.
   
A new caretaker government could also be installed.
   
In this tense climate, no one wants early elections and the problem, with or without Leterme, must be resolved if it is to avoid boosting fringe parties in regional elections in June next year.
   
"He had three chances and wasn't able to take any of them, he lost all credibility," said Pascal Delwit, political expert at the Free University of Brussels, said, but he could not predict an outcome.
   
"All the usual political ground-rules have been cast aside over the last year. One minute things are getting better, an hour later it's a psychodrama," he said.
   
One thing was sure, parties of all political stripe were holding crisis talks to try to chart a way ahead. With parliament set to take a summer break on Friday, a decision must come before then so that deputies can endorse it.
   
A source close to the dossier said the king would probably keep consulting until at least Wednesday.
   
"There is no precise scenario for the moment. We have to give these things time," the source said, on condition of anonymity.
   
Leterme has refused further comment until the king rules on his future.
   
 

Date created : 2008-07-16

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