Belgium's ex-PM steps down as party head after coalition failure

28th April 2010, Comments 0 comments

Former Belgian PM Yves Leterme, forced out of office as his coalition government imploded, stepped down Wednesday as head of the Flemish Christian democrats as the country heads for snap polls.

For Leterme it marks the end of three fraught years, since the last general election, during which he held the prime ministerial office twice and offered his resignation three times.

The latest crisis was sparked by the decision of his Flemish liberal partners to quit the five-party coalition, as Belgium's chronic intercommunal tensions -- between the French- and Dutch-speaking communities, flares up once again.

Leterme accepted "responsibility" for the current situation.

"The strategies I employed didn't work," he admitted, as he announced his intention to hand over the CD&V party reins.

He handed the leadership on to party chairwoman Marianne Thyssen, whose first task will probably be to head an election campaign, although there has not yet been a call to the urns.

She could then become the country's first woman leader.

The two-chamber parliament has not officially been dissolved yet, but the likelihood was for June polls, after King Albert II accepted Leterme's resignation, after a lengthy pause, on Monday.

The hope is to get a new functioning government in place before Belgium assumes the EU's rotating presidency in July.

This is especially so given the pride Belgium takes in hosting EU headquarters in Brussels.

All players are keen to avoid the national embarrassment of attempting to steer European policy without a proper national government in place.

The constant rowing between the more prosperous Dutch-speaking Flemish to the north and their poorer francophone neighbours in southern Wallonia mean each Belgian government must be a coalition and that each coalition must be a fragile one.

Flemish nationalists are seeking more autonomy. while the Walloons fear they could eventually lead the country to split along its linguistic faultline.

Leterme's latter term in office lasted just five months.

He was only handed the job, the second time around, because his predecessor Herman Van Rompuy was named as the EU's first president.

Leterme was first forced out of office in December 2008 amid a banking bailout scandal at the height of the global financial crisis.

Thyssen, his successor as party leader, insisted Wednesday that "we are not in favour of the end of Belgium, but for pretty deep reforms."

The legally-trained 53-year-old, a long-time member of the European parliament, is one of the favourite politicians in Flanders, according to opinion polls.

No Belgian political party operates nationwide, such are the communal differences.

© 2010 AFP

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