Belgium scrambles to avoid political collapse
Meetings hold key to whether the king accepts resignation of prime minister Yves Leterme.
The meetings will hold the key to whether King Albert II accepts the resignation of prime minister Yves Leterme over a scandal linked to troubled Fortis bank.
Deadlocked elections in June 2007 left the country unable to form a new government to overcome deep divisions between Dutch and French-speaking regions.
Leterme finally pulled together a cabinet in March, which has now collapsed under allegations that his aides pressured judges not to interfere in the break-up of Belgian-Dutch bank Fortis, which nearly collapsed in the global financial crisis.
The scandal, dubbed by the Belgian press "Fortisgate", centres on a legal battle with Fortis's minority shareholders over the government sale of the bank's Belgian assets to French bank BNP Paribas. The court has frozen the sale.
Albert II gathered political leaders from the main Flemish and francophone parties for consultations late Friday and again on Saturday.
But analysts said the monarch is not likely to keep a premier under the cloud of a scandal. "It is difficult for him (Leterme) to remain in office now," said political analyst Jean Faniel. "He is now facing up to his political responsibilities."
The Belgian press expressed no sympathy for Leterme, a Flemish Christian Democrat. The headline in the francophone Le Soir read: "On to the next one, and fast!"
The king has previously backed Leterme, refusing the 48-year-old's offer of resignation in July when he was unable to reach a compromise with the Flemish community over its demands for more autonomy for Flanders.
With a French-speaking father and a Dutch-speaking mother, Leterme appeared to have the best chance of bridging Belgium's linguistic divide but instead has earned a reputation as a dull leader.
Now as Belgium, like the rest of Europe, grapples with the global economic crisis, the country cannot afford another long delay in picking a new government.
The Flemish newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws said in an editorial that a decision of some kind has to be made this weekend.
The main political parties are opposed to new elections, which the press said would be a disaster. "The real catastrophe would be to turn to elections, not to exercise power, given the challenges which are on the table," Le Soir wrote.
Belgian analysts say the most likely scenario would be for the king to nominate a transition government consisting of representatives from the parties in the outgoing five-party coalition.
The king would designate a new prime minister whose cabinet would remain in power until regional elections set for June 2009, which could be coupled with a legislative election.
According to Belgian media, some of the potential candidates to replace Leterme are the head of the Flemish Christian-Democrats Marianne Thyssen, chamber of deputies speaker Herman Van Rompuy, who comes from the same party, francophone liberal Didier Reynders and former prime ministers Jean-Luc Dehaene or Guy Verhofstadt, both Flemish.