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Europe

Lower house speaker Van Rompuy to form new government

Video by Jennifer KNOCK , Aurore Cloé DUPUIS

Latest update : 2008-12-30

King Albert II of Belgium has called on the speaker of the lower house of parliament, Herman Van Rompuy, a Christian Democrat, to form a new government to replace that of the former prime minister, Yves Leterme.

AFP - Belgium's King Albert II brought an end Sunday to a new phase of potentially-damaging political limbo, calling on parliament speaker Herman Van Rompuy to form a new government.
   
The move came 10 days after Prime Minister Yves Leterme stepped down in the so-called "Fortisgate" scandal, with his aides accused of trying to influence a court case linked to the break-up of the major bank Fortis.
   
"The king has charged Mr Van Rompuy to form a government. He has accepted the mission," said a short statement, after the speaker had held almost 90 minutes of talks with the monarch.
   
Van Rompuy, a Flemish Christian Democrat like Leterme, had affirmed -- as late as this weekend -- that he would never accept the post of premier, but is now likely to handle one of the kingdom's worst-ever political crises.
   
"My name is being cited once again as the new prime minister, but I do not consider myself indispensable," the 61-year-old political veteran told the Saturday edition of Flemish daily De Standaard.
   
His nomination came shortly after another seasoned veteran -- former premier Wilfried Martens -- had reported back to the monarch on what he thought was the best way out of Belgium's lengthy political malaise.
   
Elected in June 2007, Leterme quit along with his government on December 19 amid allegations that his aides had sought to influence a court ruling linked to the break-up of Fortis.
   
But the 48-year-old Christian Democrat never really overcame differences between Belgium's French-speaking community and Dutch-speakers, who insist that any new cabinet should start handing more powers to the three regions, which also include the Brussels area.
   
The power-sharing tussle was exacerbated by the global financial crisis -- of which the Fortis break-up was a symptom -- and the threat of recession, and the collapse of Leterme's government has only deepened the malaise.
   
Fortis group was hastily dismantled in October as the 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 on December 19 that he had "strong indications," but no legal proof, that Leterme's aides tried to influence the court.
   
The path ahead now appears smoother.
   
The five parties in the current coalition agreed on Friday to keep the same government, replacing only Leterme and justice minister Jo Vandeurzen, who fell on his sword over the "Fortisgate" allegations.
   
Among the first tasks facing Van Rompuy -- one of the few real candidates left with the necessary political clout -- will be to guide the 2009 budget through parliament.
   
An economist by training, he was the budget minister from 1993 to 1999 under the then government of prime minister Jean-Luc Dehaene, who had also emerged as a favourite to replace Leterme.
   
Leterme struggled for months to put together a government.
   
Although he eventually succeeded after months of on-again-off-again negotiations, the issue of power sharing continued to dog him, forcing him to resign in July -- an initial offer which Albert II refused.
   
More devolution is a main demand of the Dutch speaking parties from Belgium's northern richer half, but the French speaking parties fear that it would be a first step down the slippery road to the country breaking up.

Date created : 2008-12-28

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