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King Albert accepts Leterme goverment's offer to resign

Latest update : 2008-12-23

Belgium's King Albert II has accepted the resignations of Prime Minister Yves Leterme and his government. Leterme offered to resign on Friday following allegations that he sought to influence a court ruling linked to the breakup of Fortis bank.

AFP - The king of Belgium accepted Monday Prime Minister Yves Leterme's resignation but chose not to name his replacement, bringing new uncertainty to an 18-month political crisis.

After three days of talks with senior politicians, King Albert II tasked a former premier with sounding out political parties to see who might be the best candidate to end the power-sharing tussle, with Belgium mired in economic woe.

"The king has accepted the resignation of the government and ordered it to carry out day-to-day business," said a short statement from the royal palace.

It gave no indication of who might replace Leterme, who resigned Friday following allegations that his aides had sought to influence a court ruling linked to the break-up of Fortis, one of the kingdom's biggest banks.

Then, in a similar communique a few hours later, the palace said: "The king has received for an audience this evening at Laeken Chateau Mr Wilfried Martens."

"The king has charged him with an exploratory mission to try to find a rapid solution to the current political crisis. Mr Wilfried Martens has accepted this mission," it said.

Martens, 72, is like Leterme a Flemish Christian Democrat and served as prime minister almost without interruption from 1979 to 1992.

But the fact that he was named suggests the king is struggling to find someone with the political clout necessary to overcome Belgium's deep linguistic divisions, and that considerable time might yet be needed.

Another former premier, Martens' successor Jean-Luc Dehaene, has emerged a favourite, with his photograph on the front page of a number of newspapers Monday.

In a separate statement, Leterme thanked his team and said he had spared no effort in trying to overcome the power-sharing crisis that has dogged him since he won the elections in June 2007.

The 48-year-old Christian Democrat never managed to ease differences between Belgium's French-speaking community and Dutch-speakers in the north, who insist that any new cabinet should start handing over powers to the three regions that also include the Brussels area.

Leterme also said he hoped to be able to prove his innocence over the scandal that the Belgian media has dubbed "Fortisgate."

"I hope with all my heart to have, over the weeks to come, an honest and calm opportunity to refute in a transparent way all the accusations levelled against me and my collaborators," he said.

"I maintain, for my part, that at no time was there any question of trying to influence, or even more attempt to obstruct, the judicial process," he said, insisting that he had acted in "the public interest."

Fortis group was hastily dismantled in October as the global financial crisis bit, with the Dutch state taking over its Dutch banking and insurance assets and the Belgian government taking over its Belgian banking business.

In a bid to secure the long-term viability of Fortis and the Belgian banking system, the government also orchestrated the sale of most of the group's Belgian assets to BNP Paribas.

But in the case brought by Fortis's minority shareholders, a Brussels appeal court ruled on December 12 that they should have been consulted on the break-up.

A top Belgian judge said Friday that he had "strong indications," but no legal proof, that Leterme's aides tried to influence the court.

The name of Dehaene, also a Christian Democrat, was given a boost after Flemish Socialists said they would be willing to work in a "transition" cabinet until June 2009, when regional elections are due.

Dehaene, 68, who twice served as premier, has developed a reputation as a political "minesweeper," having chaperoned feuding French- and Dutch-speaking communities through power-sharing disputes in the past.

Date created : 2008-12-22