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Belgium finally gets new PM, 16 months after vote

Flemish liberal leader Alexander De Croo will be Belgium’s new prime minister at the head of a seven-party coalition government, it was announced Wednesday — 16 months after an inconclusive election.

De Croo’s French-speaking socialist rival Paul Magnette confirmed that the parties had chosen the 44-year-old finance minister as premier. He is to be sworn in on Thursday by Belgium’s king.

By choosing a Flemish leader, the incoming government hopes to balance the fact that its parliamentary base will be drawn from mainly French-speaking parties, with the main Dutch-speaking groups in opposition.

“We flipped a coin and it came down to Alexander and it’s an excellent choice,” Magnette joked at the end of the press conference to present the outcome of the negotiations.

Belgium has had no governing majority for 21 months since the collapse of former leader Charles Michel’s government, and it has been 493 days since federal elections failed to resolve the crisis.

Leaders from seven parties met until the early hours on Wednesday before coming to an agreement on a government programme and cabinet line-up to be presented to King Philippe.

De Croo will replace French-speaking liberal leader Sophie Wilmes who has served as acting premier during the coronavirus epidemic but never wielded a parliamentary majority.

The new coalition will bring together two socialist parties — one French-speaking, and one Flemish — two liberal parties and two sets of greens.

– ‘Anti-Flemish’? –

The CD&V, a party of Flemish Christian democrats will also join, but the larger Flemish nationalist N-VA, which was in government between 2014 and 2018 will leave power.

Belgium’s parliament is expected to meet on Thursday to endorse the new government.

The country has been governed by a minority coalition since December 2018, when the N-VA abruptly left Michel’s government during a row about immigration.

The legislative election of May 2019 saw gains by various green and fringe groupings, further fragmenting the political landscape and making it harder to build a majority around the traditional parties.

Ideological differences between the parties are complicated by Belgium’s north-south split between French and Dutch speaking regions.

Last weekend, several thousand supporters of the nationalist far-right Vlaams Belang staged a protest near Brussels to denounce what they dubbed “this anti-Flemish and left-wing government”.

Belgium has a history of political instability, and went without a government for 541 days in 2010 and 2011, but political scientist Dave Sinardet said De Croo could be the right choice.

“It’s symbolically important to have a Flemish prime minister, given that the new government will come under the most fire from Flanders and the two biggest Flemish parties are in the opposition,” he told AFP.

De Croo’s party, the Open VLD, is a pivot point in Belgian politics and has frequently been part of governing coalitions and the new premier has been a minister since 2012.

The former business leader, who switched to politics in 2009, is the first Dutch-speaker to take over 16 Rue de la Loi — the prime minister’s official residence — after nine years of French-speakers.

But he is bilingual and served as deputy prime minister under socialist Elio Di Rupo from 2012 to 2014, then with the French-speaking liberals Michel, from 2014 to 2019, and Wilmes.

He has variously served as a minister for finance, pensions and international development.