Belgium plunged into crisis as PM offers resignation

22nd April 2010, Comments 0 comments

Belgium plunged into political crisis on Thursday as Prime Minister Yves Leterme threw in the towel -- for the third time -- after a key Flemish party quit his coalition government.

The situation was in flux, however, as the king delayed a decision on whether to accept Laterme's resignation saying a political crisis would "seriously threaten" Belgium's role in Europe two months before the country assumes the EU presidency.

Flemish Christian democrat Leterme informed King Albert II of his decision to quit, after just five months at the helm, from the job he inherited from predecessor Herman Van Rompuy who left to become the first EU president.

Leterme's decision was forced when his Flemish liberal allies, the Open VLD, quit the five-party coalition Thursday over a long-running row between the country's Dutch-speaking and francophone communities over electoral rules in flashpoint suburbs of Brussels.

Party president Alexander De Croo told reporters that "the Open VLD has lost confidence in the government."

Leterme "presented the resignation of his government," said a palace statement. "The king is withholding his decision."

"The king and the prime minister underlined how unfortunate it would be, in the current circumstances, to be drawn into a political crisis," it said.

Such an outcome, it added, "would seriously threaten on the one hand the economic and social well-being of its citizens and on the other hand Belgium's role at a European level."

The political crisis also made it unlikely that Belgian lawmakers would hold a much-anticipated vote Thursday on imposing a ban on wearing the Islamic burqa in public.

"There was no other choice but for the government to resign," Finance Minister Didier Reynders told reporters after the Open VLD party withdrew its support.

The fresh explosion of deep-seated tensions between the richer Dutch-speaking Flemish and poorer francophone region of Wallonia to the south casts a cloud over attempts by Belgium to set an assertive agenda ahead of assuming the EU's rotating presidency on July 1.

Open VLD took its decision after lengthy talks between parties from the two linguistic regions failed to reach a deal over the special voting rights which apply to French speakers in the Brussels-Hal-Vilvorde suburbs of Brussels, where around 100,000 francophones live.

These Flemish-run communities on the outskirts of the capital have been trying to dissuade French-speakers from moving in, largely by demanding that they speak Dutch, but also by toughly enforcing rules on public housing and seeking to suppress the special voting rights.

Talks broke down overnight Wednesday with no deal in sight.

The four remaining coalition members can still between them muster a mathematical majority in the chamber of deputies.

But the departure of the Flemish liberals broke the coalition's fragile balance -- leaving just Leterme's Flemish Christian democrats and three francophone parties.

There are no political parties operating nationally, which means each government must be a coalition of the linguistic communities.

Leterme first quit as premier in July 2008, after a succession of failed earlier attempts to form an administration, also over the interminable squabbling between Dutch-speaking Flemish parties and poorer French-speaking Walloons.

King Albert II refused his resignation on that occasion, before accepting when Leterme returned to the palace in December that year -- after he was accused of interfering with the course of justice by bailed out Fortis bank shareholders.

Many Walloons fear their compatriots to the north ultimately want full autonomy.

Open VLD's decision "won't win Flanders what it really wants, separation and the end of the country," said francophone leader Olivier Maingain.

Dutch speakers make up 60 percent of the population in Belgium, where only the capital Brussels is officially bilingual.

© 2010 AFP

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