Belgian ex-premier meets party chiefs as hunt begins for new PM

23rd November 2009, Comments 0 comments

The hunt has began in earnest for a new Belgian prime minister after Herman Van Rompuy was chosen as the EU first president, with his predecessor Yves Leterme appearing in pole position.

BRUSSELS - Another ex-premier, Wilfried Martens, met with party leaders separately as he formally began the task which King Albert II has handed him, to seek a smooth transition.

"I am quite happy that I sense a consensus on the name of Yves Leterme as prime minister to succeed Herman Van Rompuy," said Marianne Thyssen, president of the Flemish Christian Democrat party, one of the Flemish parties in the coalition government.

Others were more reticent after their sessions with Martens.

Deputy Prime Minister Didier Reynders, from the francophone Mouvement Reformateur (MR) said he was continuing to work with the current PM, Van Rompuy.

Martens himself kept away from the press microphones as his discussions continued into the evening.

King Albert tapped up Martens on Friday, tasking him to help find the next PM without causing the kind of political crises which beset Belgium before Van Rompuy took the reins of a coalition government less than a year ago.

The king "has charged Mr Martens with the mission of assisting a quick and efficient transition," the royal palace said in a statement Friday.

That became necessary after EU leaders on Thursday chose Van Rompuy to become the European Union's first president, a post he is set to take up on January 1.

He could leave the PM's office before that.

Martens, 72, was to continue his discussions on Sunday with government ministers and others, including Leterme.

He was handed a similar mission almost exactly a year ago to try to find a solution to the political crisis which held up the formation of a permanent government for almost a year.

A Flemish Christian Democrat who served as prime minister almost without interruption from 1979 to 1992, Martens was also considered a candidate to take back the post he held so long again last year.

On Friday, Belgium widely feted Van Rompuy's EU nomination.

But the joy was tempered by fears his departure would hurt Belgian politics, perennially in turmoil over tensions between the Dutch-speaking Flemish community to the north and the poorer francophone region in the south.

Van Rompuy had been engaged in very tricky negotiations on the rights of the francophone minority in Flemish suburbs of Brussels, a focal point for the communal differences which Martens will try to address.

The larger picture is that leaders in the richer Flanders region are seeking more autonomy, something the southerners in Wallonia oppose.

His predecessor Leterme is well-placed to return to power but had a pretty torrid term last time.

Leterme lasted less than a year in power, forced to quit last December amid a banking bailout scandal. During his short tenure he also struggled with the

Flemish-francophone problem.

Martens was not scheduled to meet up with Leterme on Saturday, though the telephone was always available. As is usual in such cases he instead met with Thyssen, president of the Flemish Christian Democrat party to which both Martens and Leterme belong.


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