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Home News Incoming Belgian PM Yves Leterme must heal wounds

Incoming Belgian PM Yves Leterme must heal wounds

Published on 25/03/2008

   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 onThursday at the head of a five-party coalition thus ending a nine-monthpolitical limbo.   However he has his work cut out to persuade the francophone minority in thepoorer southern Wallonia region of his ability to unite the country which hasbeen 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 hefuelled unease in Wallonia's political establishment by running on a campaignin 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 thepast by calling Belgium an "accident of history" and saying that the countryhas no "intrinsic value."   In another infamous gaffe he confused the Belgian national anthem with theFrench "Marseillaise".   Leterme's reputation has also been damaged by two unsuccessful attemptslast year to form a coalition government.   It was only in the early hours of Tuesday, after a night of talks, that thenew coalition finally agreed on a political agenda.   Even that deal was only reached by sidestepping the core problem of statereforms.   A relative newcomer to national politics, the 47-year-old Leterme built upa regional political career in Dutch-speaking Flanders and did not join thefederal 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 regionalgovernment 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 topractise politics in a different way; seeking more balance, wisdom, calm, butobviously still with the same enthusiasm and dedication."   His coalition partners -- a wide church of francophone and Dutch-speakingsocialists, Christian Democrats and liberals -- will be keen to see whethersuch comments are based on a new political conversion or old-fashionedopportunism.   In any case he begins his tenure in the unusual position of already faringpoorly in the opinion polls.   According to one published Monday, just 10 percent of francophones and 45percent of Flemish voters have confidence in him at the helm.   To add to his troubles the married father of three has recently sufferedbouts of ill-health.   He was hospitalised for two weeks last month suffering fromgastrointestinal bleeding and spent 24 hours in intensive care before alsocontracting 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 supportunless he makes strides towards a major reform of Belgium's institutions bymid-July.