Three days after Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme submitted his government’s resignation, King Albert finally refused to accept the resignation.
It was the third time since the June 2007 parliamentary elections, that Leterme had offered to hand in his resignation. Nothing new. But this time he was dropped by his own camp. The Flemish Christian Democrat Party (CDV) decided not to support its leader, thereby refusing to postpone negotiations on institutional reform until this autumn, something they had promised voters not to do.
“Yves Leterme is in a rather difficult situation,” says Jean Faniel, a researcher for a Brussels-based research centre, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “He is a former minister and president of Flanders who became Belgium’s PM with the intention of defending the interests of his own region. He is out of tune. If he wants to become a national prime minister, he must represent all the Belgians,” he explains.
Flanders demands more autonomy
Leterme’s resignation offer surprised many Belgians and is yet another episode in the political crisis that has gripped this country since June 2007. Flemish and French-speaking communities are at loggerheads over greater autonomy for Flanders. For years, the richest region of the kingdom has been demanding more autonomy, particularly in terms of employment and social security.
According to Francis Delpérée, Belgian senator for Humanist Democratic Centre (HDC) Party and law professor at the Louvain University, “French-speakers believe that Belgian regions are already on the path toward greater autonomy and there is no reason to rush things along. The Flemish, on the other hand, are pushing for autonomy and would like to see concrete steps being taken in that direction. These two visions are hard to reconcile.”
Talks stumble over “BHV”
Leterme took over as prime minister on March 20 and has been unable to reconcile the different visions of the majority’s five coalition partners. When he set a deadline for negotiations of July 15, 2008, he shot himself in the foot.
Negotiations froze on one issue: the status of the bilingual district of the Brussels-Hal-Vilvorde, or “BHV”. The Flemish want to split the area to stop the French-speaking minority living in the Brussels suburbs from voting for French-speaking candidates during parliamentary elections.
Agreement by French-speaking parties to split “BHV” is subject to a prior merger of Brussels with a couple of towns in Flanders that have large French-speaking communities.
To try to resolve the crisis, King Albert II consulted with all the concerned parties endlessly, seeking a compromise acceptable by all.
The king has met the ministers-presidents of the three Belgian regions, Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels-Capital. So far, only the federal Flemish and French-speaking parties have been involved in talks on institutional reform. Some observers see this change as a sign in favour of Leterme who had defended talks at a regional level.
Trouble ahead as the 2009 regional elections nears
No CDV party member emerges as a candidate capable of creating a new government, according to Faniel. “The country can’t leave the CDV behind and nobody seems to be able to carry on after Leterme. It seems nobody can aptly represent the whole party.”
If Belgian regions are slowly gaining more autonomy, the latest crisis seems to denote the first moves of an electoral campaign. If the CDV allows any concessions to be made on institutional reform, it runs the risk of alienating its separatist allies of the New Flemish Alliance (NVA). A loss that could alienate voters during the upcoming regional elections inJune 2009.