One year after resigning, Belgium's Leterme still PM

21st April 2011, Comments 0 comments

Yves Leterme marks Friday a full year since he resigned as prime minister of Belgium -- and yet he is still at his post, waiting for bickering political parties to finally form a new government.

Twelve months ago, Leterme threw in the towel for a second time on the job running the government when it became clear the cultural, political and economic divisions between Flanders and Wallonia were virtually ungovernable.

Leterme's 'temporary' administration has since entered the Guinness Book of World Records, taking from Iraq the dubious honour of the modern state going the longest between an election and the formation of a workable government.

Despite its caretaker role, in the last year it has passed a budget enabling public-sector wages to be paid and even managed to contribute to the air war in Libya against Moamer Kadhafi.

But the single, dominant issue for everyone in Belgium has been left to one side for Leterme, as King Albert II failed to secure a stable replacement coalition despite a succession of mediators.

"After so much determination, we will maybe have a new government in the next few months," said political analyst Pierre Vercauteren. "But nobody sees that in the short term."

When Leterme's resignation triggered elections, the results reinforced the differences between wealthier Dutch-speaking Flanders and more left-leaning French-speaking Wallonia and strengthened the hand of the Flemish nationalists.

Interminable dialogue ultimately about how much fiscal independence to give Flanders obtained few concessions -- certainly none sufficient to placate the election winner on the Flemish side, Bart De Wever.

Belgium's students staged a brief flurry of demonstrations calling, largely via Facebook, for "unity" across the linguistic divide, the most memorable of which saw scores strip off in Flemish Ghent one sunny, but freezing afternoon.

In the home of surrealism, a tongue-in-cheek "chips revolution" also drew tens of thousands on to the streets while celebrities suggested sex and shaving boycotts to prod politicians towards reconciliation.

But the weakness of the response was its jocularity, and for every ideological unionist in Brussels there is another who says simply 'if divorce it is, then divorce it shall be.'

The humourists have made capital out of trains running better than ever, but money markets have expressed their deep dislike of the uncertainty by raising borrowing costs for a state already in debt to the tune of a full year's income.

A symbol of unity, Belgium's football team has emerged over the same period as one with the best chance of jousting with the giants at least as long as a crop of four or five top-class youths maintain their initial momentum.

Born only in 1830, Belgium could stagger on little changed for years yet -- but it could also break up, and businesses, media and ordinary citizens here have got used to trying to imagine what that would be like.

De Wever has been called a "demagogue too readily followed" by one former prime minister, Mark Eyskens, while Leterme rolls along unfettered by the bigger game playing out in front of him.

He is clear about one thing, which not all the French-speaking parties are: De Wever's N-VA has to be seriously represented in any cabinet that takes over his position.

Harvard academic Robert Mnookin has said Belgium might need an international troubleshooter to bridge the gap. He suggested Finland's Martti Ahtisaari, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who took on previous 'missions impossible' in Kosovo, Namibia and Ireland.

But for now, Leterme is still at the wheel and could keep driving Belgium for many more months to come -- or longer.

If all else fails, Vercauteren said, the caretaker government could stay on, and "in theory that's possible until the legislature's term ends in 2014."

© 2011 AFP

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