Belgian king bids to restore political order

27th April 2010, Comments 0 comments

Belgium's King Albert II faced a narrow window on Tuesday in which to find a miracle man to forge a new government, or call elections widely seen as a threat to its unified future.

After the king accepted premier Yves Leterme's resignation on Monday amid a breakdown in relations between Dutch and French-speaking political parties, a snap poll appeared likely just two months from assuming the EU's chair.

Flemish and Walloon parties met into the night to assess their options, and the king kept his counsel going with fresh talks on Tuesday.

With francophone parties awaiting morning talks, outgoing finance minister Didier Reynders said on Tuesday that leaders had to "take a few hours to calm spirits and find political personalities able to assume their responsibilities."

Leterme, whose second stint as head of government lasted just five months, remained only in a caretaker capacity on Tuesday, having given up the ghost saying it was "impossible to reach a deal" in negotiations between rival Flemish and Walloon communities about voting rights in a mixed constituency.

The dissolution of the federal parliament would, under the Belgian constitution, lead to elections within 40 days, suggesting they could take place in the first half of June -- with the EU role starting on July 1.

The alternative is to try to find another negotiator to head off a damaging vote set for Thursday, which could see Flemish lawmakers use their majority to clip voting rights for French speakers in Dutch-speaking suburbs of Brussels.

The more prosperous Dutch-speaking Flanders already enjoys substantial autonomy, but their poorer francophone Walloon neighbours argue that the existing federal set-up with regional parliaments was sufficient.

"The king has accepted the resignation of the government," said a short statement late on Monday, following a failed mission by deputy premier Reynders to patch up Belgium's fragile coalition.

Reynders told national television that the likelihood of a general election posed a real danger for his country's future unity, warning: "I am afraid that this is a choice which could lead the country towards a very serious crisis."

Proud of Brussels' status as 'Europe's capital,' many Belgians are keen to avoid a prolonged political crisis and embarrassment as it prepares to take the European Union reins on a host of issues including the economy.

Belgian newspapers warned on Tuesday that their country was in danger of falling apart, politically and even financially, with French-language daily Le Soir warning of "total paralysis."

It also expressed fears that speculators could target a broken Belgium in the way they have debt-stricken Greece, saying "markets could prove unforgiving."

"Help! They're going to end up killing Belgium," added tabloid La Nouvelle Gazette.

Best-selling Flemish newspaper Het Laatse Nieuws said "the country is on the edge of the abyss," warning that nationalist formations could seize the upper hand in elections and render coalition-building even more difficult.

"Belgium is now the most fragile state in northern Europe," underlined the business daily l'Echo. "When the banks fell, they were propped up by states. But behind states, there is no-one else," it warned.

© 2010 AFP

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