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Verhofstadt to resign after major defeat

11 June 2007

BRUSSELS (AP) – Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt is to tender his government’s resignation Monday, one day after general elections in which conservatives – led by Christian Democrats – dealt his Socialist-Liberal coalition a stunning defeat.

As votes were still counted Sunday, Verhofstadt, 54, conceded defeat, saying he would leave the limelight after eight years as prime minister. “The voters of our country … have opted for a different majority,” he said.

“I gave it my best,” said Verhofstadt after three of the four liberal and socialist coalition partners sagged dramatically in the polls. “It has been an honour to lead the country and its people. I take personal responsibility for the results,” the Dutch-speaking Liberal said at the end of his eight years in office.

By tradition, Verhofstadt will offer the resignation of his government to King Albert II on Monday, clearing the way for negotiations to start, probably under the leadership of Christian Democrat Yves Leterme.

That majority faces a difficult agenda that is bound to be dominated by steps to grant further autonomy to Flanders, Belgium’s Dutch-speaking northern half, and Wallonia, its francophone south.

Since the 1980s, the two regions have been given far-reaching powers of self-rule to end endless linguistic squabbles.

Politicians, especially in economically dominant, free trade-minded Flanders – home to 60 percent of the 10.5 million Belgians – routinely demand more self-rule, notably in economic areas. They complain that the long-dominant socialists in Wallonia are a hidebound lot who resist labour and other reforms that are common elsewhere in Europe.

Guy Leterme – head of the Dutch-speaking Christian Democrats and possibly Belgium’s next premier – signalled on Sunday that Belgians want their next government to separate Dutch and French-speakers already more than they are.

That would be a new tack since Verhofstadt’s outgoing government focused mostly on restoring Belgium to economic health and growth by slashing debt and annual budget deficits.

In a nation where parties are split into Dutch and French-speaking camps, getting parties from both sides of the political and linguistic divide can take months.

With 90 percent of votes counted throughout Belgium, Leterme’s Christian Democrats won 8 seats to control 30 in the 150-seat House of Representatives, or 20 percent.

The Francophone liberals were the only coalition party to hold their own and become the second biggest party in parliament with 23 seats, ahead of the socialists who dropped five to 20, losing their long domination over the Francophone south.

Verhofstadt’s Flemish liberals have 18 seats, a loss of 7, while the Flemish Socialists had the worst crash, dropping 9 seats to fall to 14.

The result made a further revision of the constitution a priority again. Once a unitary kingdom, powers have steadily flowed to the linguistic regions since the 1960s, when a linguistic frontier cutting through the country was approved.

“It is absolutely necessary that in the years ahead we shift” more economic powers to Flanders and Wallonia, said Leterme.

The comment reflects irritation in Flanders that hidebound economic conservatives in Wallonia resist labour and other reforms that are commonplace in Europe.

Independence-minded parties in Flanders also posted gains Sunday, adding to the groundswell.

The far right Vlaams Belang had a small increase in votes, but lost a seat to fall to 17. Jean-Marie Dedecker, an independent newcomer, immediately won 5 seats with his populist appeal.

Green parties scored something of a comeback but remained small factions.

The post of prime minister has been held by a Dutch-speaker for the last 33 years, reflecting Flanders’ economic dominance. In Wallonia, politicians have been pushing for a francophone prime minister.

Voting is mandatory for Belgium’s 7.7 million voters, with all 150 seats in the House of Representatives and 40 of the 71 Senate seats at stake.

Flemings can only vote for Flemish parties and Walloon voters only for Francophone parties, except for the area in and around the bilingual capital, Brussels, where parties from both languages are on the list.

Leterme has said he wants changes to the constitution to give Flanders more autonomy to run its employment and economic affairs and be stifled by the less prosperous and traditionally socialist south.

Any changes to the constitution would require a two-thirds majority in both the Flemish and the Francophone parts of the country.

The vote capped a campaign that centred largely on personalities rather than issues.

Verhofstadt predicted during the campaign that voting his Liberals out of office would lead to a return to outdated state intervention of the economy and higher taxes.

[Copyright AP 2007]

Subject: Belgian news