Belgium struggles with political crisis

24th August 2007, Comments 0 comments

Belgium struggles with political crisis

24 August 2007

BRUSSELS (AFP) - Belgium was mired in a political crisis on Friday after Flemish leader Yves Leterme gave up efforts to form a government with francophone partners who reject his plans for constitutional reform.

King Albert II rushed back from holiday in the south of France on Thursday to accept Christian Democrat leader Leterme's resignation as prime minister-in-waiting.

That move brings the political process in Belgium back to square one, two-and-a-half months after general elections on 10 June.

Belgium is now in a "state of emergency" Leterme's CDV party president Pieter De Crem said Friday.

"The francophones have collided with the Flemish aim of reforming the state in order to prepare for the future," he said on local radio, describing the situation as "critical".

The demands from Flanders, the richer Dutch speaking north, for more regional powers stoked fears among French-speaking politicians in southern Wallonia that Leterme was looking to break up the country by undermining the federal state.

Leterme's past comments, including that the francophones do not have the intellectual capacity to learn Dutch or that Belgium is just an "accident of history," have done little to soothe those fears.

Nearly everything in Belgium is divided on the basis of language.

Around six million of Belgium's 10.5 million people live in Dutch-speaking Flanders, with 3.5 million in French-speaking Wallonia and one million in the largely francophone Brussels capital region.

Brussels, the capital and third region, is the only place which is officially bilingual, with road signs and administrative documents in French and Dutch. It is also home to the European Union's institutions.

Leterme, whom the king last month named as 'formateur' of the next government, met the monarch late Thursday to tender his resignation. He then said in a statement that he had been unable to form a government which would fulfil the wishes of the electorate.

"Last week... I realised that despite concerted efforts there was an impasse as regards constitutional reforms," Leterme said.

"This afternoon I realised that it was impossible to move forward with an ambitious government programme, the perspective and direction of which the electors clearly defined on June 10," he added.

The king then held lengthy evening talks with Didier Reynders, head of the liberal francophone Mouvement Reformateur.

One of Leterme's main political obstacles, dubbed "Madame Non" in the Flemish press, is party leader Joelle Milquet of the CDH (Democratic Humanist Centre).

She denies suggestions in Flanders that she herself is seeking the prime minister's position, which would be a rarity for a francophone. "That's not my ambition or objective," she said on RTBF radio on Friday.

Leterme's task was made even more difficult by the need for a two-thirds majority in parliament to push through the constitutional changes sought by the Flemish parties.

The francophone parties accused Leterme of not leading the negotiations with an even hand, seeking to advance the cause of Flanders rather than the country as a whole.

However some francophone commentators warned that the political crisis could only fuel the more radical Flemish calls for increased regional powers, warning that that the issue of state reform should not be shirked.

"Everyone, Flemish and francophones -- has an interest in that dialogue taking place," said the editorial in the francophone Le Soir newspaper.

"If that is not the case then the risk of radicalisation exists," the paper added under the headline "Gordian knot".

As the political impasse continues, the pre-election liberal-socialist government, under Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, continues to manage the country's day-to-day affairs but is not empowered to make important policy decisions.

[Copyright AFP 2007]

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