Belgian PM Leterme throws in the towel

Belgian PM Leterme throws in the towel

15th July 2008, Comments 0 comments

Belgian politics took another predictable turn as the 13th month became unlucky for the man dubbed the 'dull one'.

With a French-speaking father and a Dutch-speaking mother, Yves Leterme appeared to have a better chance than most of bridging Belgium's linguistic divide as prime minister.

   But the 47-year-old Flemish conservative -- who handed in his resignation overnight Monday after a third attempt to do so -- has sometimes done more to fuel tensions than ease them, often by being perceived as doing nothing at all.

   Dubbed "le terne", or the "dull one", by the Belgian press, the Christian
Democrat leader disappointed with his lack of charisma but more importantly his inability to transcend regional politics.

   "Yves Leterme throws in the towel," Tuesday's La Libre Belgique daily said.

   "For 13 months, he took no initiative, or so few. He deserts the ship with
his head bowed low, abandoning his command when an economic crisis is at our doorstep," the paper said.

   Leterme only took office in March, heading a five-party coalition that
brought a period of hope following months of political limbo which set in after he won the general elections a year ago but could not form a government.

   But since winning the polls, he has never really been able to persuade
Belgium's French-speaking minority in the poorer southern Wallonia region of his ability to unite the country.

   Nor was he able to persuade Flemish parties to soften their demands that more powers be devolved down to Flanders, which accounts for around 60 percent of the kingdom's 10.5 million people. There is also a small German community.

   The unprecedented political crisis -- now set to resume -- sparked fears that Belgium could split along the faultline dividing its two main communities linguistically, geographically, economically and culturally.

   A recent opinion poll showed that almost one in two Flemish people are in favour of Belgium splitting in two.

   Although perfectly bilingual, Leterme took time before trying 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".

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   Indeed before coming to office, Leterme's reputation was already damaged goods, hurt by two unsuccessful attempts last year to form a coalition.

   And even that deal was only reached by sidestepping the problem of reforms demanded by Flanders to match its economic might.

   A newcomer to national politics, Leterme built up a regional political
career and did not join the federal parliament 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 as the head of the Flanders
regional government, after an earlier career as a member of a government audit watchdog and an expert to the European Union.

   As he came to office, an opinion poll showed that just 10 percent of
French-speakers and 45 percent of Flemish voters had confidence in him.

   Then, to add to his troubles, the married father of three also suffered
bouts of ill-health, and was admitted to hospital with internal bleeding,
spending 24 hours in intensive care before also contracting pneumonia.

(AFP - expatica July 2008)


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