21st September 2006, Comments 0 comments

When should a government minister resign?

When should a government minister resign?

Should a minister resign if Turkish militant Fehriye Erdal escapes in February while under 24-hour surveillance of the national security service on the eve of her conviction in absentia for terrorist activities?

Should a minister resign if she approves the penitentiary leave of one of Belgium's most notorious criminals, Murat Kaplan, who once carried out the most spectacular and daring escape in Belgian history and who later fails to return to prison after his weekend leave?

And what about the escape of 28 detainees from Dendermonde prison after two inmates broke open an aging cell door and locked up three guards? Do claims of a lack of funding and a slow-moving response to the demand for new jails constitute sufficient reason?

Or, in the latest outrage, does the early release of convicted Albanian gangster Victor Hoxha — who is told to leave the country at the threat of having to serve out his full sentence, but later returns and is not arrested — warrant a minister's resignation?

According to Justice Minister Laurette Onkelinx, the answer on all counts is no.

But how long can the nation suffer at the hands of such apparent ineptitude this year alone?

The Francophone Socialist PS minister has simply shrugged off the criticism in each case, refusing to resign or pointing the finger of blame somewhere else.

The series of blunders and controversies have now led to a government crisis.

The Flemish Liberal VLD withdrew its support for Onkelinx during a Parliament debate on Wednesday night, pitting the party against the Francophone Socialists who are refusing to sacrifice their minister, said to be one of the most powerful women in Belgian politics.

The VLD claims an agreement had been reached with the Socialists putting a temporary freeze on the early release of serious offenders.

That policy was to remain in place until new sentencing enforcement courts were established in January 2007. From that date onwards, ministers will no longer have the final say on a prisoner's parole.

However, Onkelinx surprised the VLD by failing to inform MPs about the agreement on Wednesday. Instead, the minister said she would only decide on parole requests in which consensus exists among parole authorities.

The VLD is not prepared to express its confidence in Onkelinx until she agrees to not release any serious criminals for the next three months. For her part, Onkelinx has refused the ultimatum and is waiting on an initiative from the VLD to end the stand-off.

A parliamentary vote on a motion of no confidence against Onkelinx now looms on 12 October, just four days after municipal elections and two days before VLD Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt will present the federal government's annual policy statement in parliament.

In the meantime, the 2006 and 2007 budgets need to be discussed and agreed on by a government forced to cancel budget talks on Friday to discuss the crisis.

"There must be confidence, otherwise the task is doubly difficult," Socialist SP.A Budget Minister Freya Van den Bossche said.

But the nation is being forced to wait, watching the coalition parties play childish political games, as PS Health Minister Rudy Demotte claimed the VLD was suffering electoral problems.

He swiftly dismissed the issue as another example of the linguistic dispute: "The Francophone ministers receive regular criticism. We are therefore going to offer a bit of resistance".

But the PS party — hit by a series of corruption scandals — is also languishing in the polls ahead of the local elections and a federal poll next year and is desperately trying to avoid losing its high profile minister.

Instead, Belgium is left with Onkelinx, who is intent on blaming the crisis on the Antwerp public prosecution office and its alleged failure to follow orders.

Antwerp had previously asked the minister what it

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