Incoming Belgian PM Yves Leterme must heal wounds

Incoming Belgian PM Yves Leterme must heal wounds

25th March 2008, Comments 0 comments

After nine long months, Belgian has its new national government. With a French-speaking father and a Dutch-speaking mother, Yves Leterme has the right genes to bridge Belgium's linguistic divide.

   With a French-speaking father and a Dutch-speaking mother, Yves Leterme has the right genes to bridge Belgium's linguistic divide, but the incoming prime minister has sometimes done more to spark tensions than ease them.
   The Flemish Christian Democrat leader will take up the reins of power on
Thursday at the head of a five-party coalition thus ending a nine-month
political limbo.
   However he has his work cut out to persuade the francophone minority in the
poorer southern Wallonia region of his ability to unite the country which has
been without a permanent government since a general election way back in June 2007.
   One major task will be to defuse fears, fuelled by the unprecedented political crisis, that Belgium could split along the faultline which divides its Dutch- and French-speaking communities linguistically, geographically,
economically and culturally.
   Part of his credibility problem goes back to the election campaign when he
fuelled unease in Wallonia's political establishment by running on a campaign
in favour of devolving more power to the regional governments, a move seen by francophone leaders as a step on the slippery path towards the country breaking up.
   Although he is perfectly bilingual, Leterme until recently made little effort to improve his image in the south, already at a low ebb after he disparaged Belgium's French speakers in 2006 as lacking the "intellectual capacity" to learn Dutch.
   In addition to taking such cheap shots, he has stoked controversy in the
past by calling Belgium an "accident of history" and saying that the country
has no "intrinsic value."
   In another infamous gaffe he confused the Belgian national anthem with the
French "Marseillaise".
   Leterme's reputation has also been damaged by two unsuccessful attempts
last year to form a coalition government.
   It was only in the early hours of Tuesday, after a night of talks, that the
new coalition finally agreed on a political agenda.
   Even that deal was only reached by sidestepping the core problem of state
reforms.
   A relative newcomer to national politics, the 47-year-old Leterme built up
a regional political career in Dutch-speaking Flanders and did not join the
federal house of representatives until 1999, when his Christian Democrats were pushed into opposition for the first time in 40 years.
   He became a party heavyweight and in 2004 was the head of the regional
government of Flanders, where 60 percent of Belgians live, after an earlier career as a member of a government audit watchdog and an expert to the European Union.
   Image-wise Leterme suffers in comparison to the outgoing PM, Flemish liberal Guy Verhofstadt who has stayed on since the election taking care of day-to-day business as the political parties bickered.
   The charismatic Verhofstadt has a reputation as a talented orator while his successor comes across as more brittle and austere.
   Leterme has recently and publicly made efforts to present a more friendly,
softer image.
   Last month, in an uncharacteristic mea culpa, he promised to "try to
practise politics in a different way; seeking more balance, wisdom, calm, but
obviously still with the same enthusiasm and dedication."
   His coalition partners -- a wide church of francophone and Dutch-speaking
socialists, Christian Democrats and liberals -- will be keen to see whether
such comments are based on a new political conversion or old-fashioned
opportunism.
   In any case he begins his tenure in the unusual position of already faring
poorly in the opinion polls.
   According to one published Monday, just 10 percent of francophones and 45
percent of Flemish voters have confidence in him at the helm.
   To add to his troubles the married father of three has recently suffered
bouts of ill-health.
   He was hospitalised for two weeks last month suffering from
gastrointestinal bleeding and spent 24 hours in intensive care before also
contracting pneumonia.
   Even a healthy Leterme will have little time to prove his worth.
   His own CDV party has put him on notice that it will withdraw its support
unless he makes strides towards a major reform of Belgium's institutions by
mid-July.

AFP 

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