Belgium's Leterme: an unelected premier for the long-haul

27th April 2011, Comments 0 comments

A full year after quitting elected office, Belgium's Yves Leterme remains King Albert II's caretaker premier, and nothing leads him to believe he can look for a new job any time soon.

"I hope we get a deal as soon as possible, a good deal (for Belgium)," Leterme told AFP after international media gently mocked his anniversary this week, citing his administration's collapse, an election rout, and the country's world record-breaking period without an elected government.

"But if a deal doesn't emerge, we will continue to manage the country's day-to-day affairs," he underlined.

Leterme admits his unelected position is "a bit strange," and made no secret of his view that the biggest winner of last June's federal elections, separatist Flemish hardliner Bart De Wever's N-VA party, had no interest in assuming power.

"We had an election, people won an awful lot of votes, they won the elections and yet ultimately it was not their objective to lead the country," he said.

"The core objective was to push with as much force as possible for a reform of the state," he said -- something just shy of outright independence but that would see Belgium's name and its international football team live on.

The cultural, political, economic and budgetary faultlines dividing Dutch-speaking Flanders, French-speaking Wallonia and bilingual Brussels are beginning to look ungovernable in the long-term.

The joke says the trains have never run better, and certainly the unelected Leterme passed a budget enabling public-sector wages to be paid and also contributed to the air war in Libya against Moamer Kadhafi.

But any number of proposals made by a succession of mediators and aimed at granting more fiscal independence to wealthy Flanders have each failed to placate De Wever.

Leterme's year was briefly marked by a tongue-in-cheek "chips revolution" demanding "national unity" that drew tens of thousands onto the streets. Celebrities meanwhile suggested sex and shaving boycotts to prod politicians towards reconciliation.

But money markets also expressed fears for the future by raising borrowing costs for a state already in debt to the tune of practically a full year's economic output.

"We do indeed need to be very careful as regards international financial markets," Leterme said, "but Belgium's underlying economic health is very, very sound."

If the Britain of divergent England and Scotland is now caught in the sort of no-man's land that lies between unitary and federal states, Belgium is carving out a whole new place in the political spectrum.

The home of surrealism, Leterme says the country will "transform itself" once again, just as it has over decades of institutional reform. But whatever else happens, "it will pay its debts just as it has in the past."

In the meantime, Leterme is settling in to the growing prospect of a longer-term role as point-man for a reluctant ruling monarchy.

"The concept of taking care of urgent matters takes on another dimension after all these months," he admitted, as he eyes up a second budget and other key hurdles on the government's horizon.

"In theory," says political analyst Pierre Vercauteren, Leterme's managerial job could run all the way through "until the legislature's term ends in 2014."

© 2011 AFP

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