Belgian king names new government after 18-month crisis

6th December 2011, Comments 0 comments

Belgian King Albert II named Socialist Elio Di Rupo to head a new government Monday, turning the page on 540 days without a government -- the longest political crisis in the country's history.

A palace statement said "the King this evening received Elio Di Rupo at Belvedere castle and named him prime minister."

The sovereign, on the new premier's suggestion, approved a slimmed-down cabinet line-up of 12 ministers and six secretaries of state to take over from a caretaker government headed by Yves Leterme .

Belgium's longstanding finance minister Didier Reynders, 53, will swap portfolios with 47-year-old foreign minister Steven Vanackere in the new coalition government, to be officially sworn in at the palace on Wednesday afternoon.

The ceremony will bring relief to Belgium's 10.5 million people exasperated by the endless squabbling between politicians that won Belgium the dubious record of the world's country longest without a government.

In a nation increasingly divided by its language barrier, the coalition put together by Di Rupo comprises parties ranging from centre-left to centre-right from both southern French-speaking Wallonia and wealthier Dutch-speaking Flanders.

Portfolios too have been evenly split between the two language communities and the parties.

Di Rupo, a 60-year-old career politician born into a poor family of migrant Italian coalminers, will be the first French-speaking premier in more than three decades and the first Socialist at the helm since 1974.

Rarely seen without a bow-tie, he will also be Europe's second openly gay head of government after Iceland's premier.

Di Rupo has been negotiating for weeks to hammer out an agreement to reduce the deficit, reform the economy, and devolve power to the two bickering language regions -- and a small German-speaking community.

After a June 2010 election failed to produce a workable government, feuding politicians squabbled for 18 months to bring together a coalition.

With the debt crisis spreading across the eurozone like wildfire, they finally set aside their quarrels last week after Belgium's borrowing costs soared and ratings giant Standard & Poor's cut its credit score from AA+ to AA.

The downgrade jolted politicians into agreeing an austerity budget that aims to cut 11.3 billion euros off the budget and balance the books by 2015.

But absent from the coalition are the Greens as well as Belgium's Flemish separatist N-VA movement that won the largest share of the vote in the June elections in Flanders, home to 60 percent of Belgians.

Its leader Bart De Wever has dismissed the coalition as "a minority government for Flanders, imposing cuts that a majority of Flemish will have to pay for."

Many in the economically-booming north feel their taxes are financing the French-speaking south, once the industrial heart of the country but now lagging behind Flanders.

Di Rupo will outline the coalition's 180-page platform to parliament on Wednesday, with the new premier then free to join this week's crucial European Union summit.

© 2011 AFP

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