Belgium government finally sworn in after 541-day vacuum

6th December 2011, Comments 0 comments

Belgium finally swore in a prime minister and cabinet on Tuesday after a record-breaking 541 days without a government but they face an uphill battle to tackle problems at the root of the deadlock.

"I swear fidelity to the king, obedience to the constitution and to the laws of the Belgian people," Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo said in the country's three languages -- French, Dutch and German -- with his right hand raised.

The ceremony, led by King Albert II at his palace, ends one of Belgium's bleakest moments, an 18-month marathon of political haggling in which the monarch worked to steer feuding politicians back to the negotiating table.

With Di Rupo sporting his trademark red bow-tie, the 12 cabinet ministers in what is already being called "the bow-tie" coalition -- six from the Dutch-speaking north, six from the French-speaking south -- then took the oath.

As divisions sharpen between the thriving north and more down-at-heels south, the country that plays host to global institutions such as the EU and NATO is struggling to remain united around a joint political and economic vision.

In much the same way prosperous Germany derides spendthrift Greece, the 6.5 million people of Flanders resent funding the 4.5 million of southern Wallonia.

Notably absent from the six-party coalition built by Di Rupo, who will be the first openly gay premier of the country, is the biggest party in Flanders, the powerful separatist N-VA which pulled out of the lengthy coalition talks.

Latest polls show it garnering between 35 and 40 percent of Flemish voters.

Yet Di Rupo will be Belgium's first French-speaking premier in more than three decades and the first Socialist at its helm since 1974.

He will also be one of Europe's sole three centre-left leaders -- with Austria and Denmark -- attending this week's crucial EU summit.

"The new team, especially its leader, comes carrying a huge burden," said an editorialist in Flemish daily Gazet van Antwerpen.

"Belgians want to believe in fairy tales," quipped French daily Le Monde.

It took soaring borrowing costs and a Standard & Poor's downgrade from AA+ to AA late last month to jolt Belgian politicians to put aside their differences and clinch a coalition deal.

Top of the agenda for Di Rupo when he outlines the new government's policy to parliament Wednesday will be a planned 11.3 billion euros in budget cuts, the toughest austerity measures in 70 years.

With debt at 96 percent of GDP last year, just behind Greece and Italy in the eurozone, the coalition has pledged to balance the books by 2015 but many economists say Belgium might not achieve the 0.8 percent growth the budget foresees.

The government, an unlikely alliance of Socialists, Christian Democrats and Liberals from both sides of Belgium's language divide, also plans further devolution of powers to regional assemblies.

But having already lost a year a half to the haggling, Di Rupo has only two and a half left "which is very little to clean up public finances, adapt our socio-economic model to the 21st century and implement a reform of the state," said an editorial in the French daily Le Soir.

The future "will be anything but a picnic," added La Libre Belgique.

Di Rupo, a career politician with a rags-to-riches life story, also comes burdened with controversially poor Dutch.

His thick, laboured accent is all the talk in the media, particularly after mixing his verbs in a recent speech by calling on Belgians to drink (drinken) when he meant to say it was urgent (dringen) to agree to austerity.

"I'm going to work on it," Di Rupo promised. "I will reply in Dutch in parliament, even with mistakes."

"My Nigerian maid who's only been in the country for two years speaks better Dutch than Elio," said separatist N-VA leader Bart De Wever.

Commentators on French-language RTL television hailed Di Rupo for taking the oath in three languages and pointed out that it was the French-speakers who had sworn allegiance in two languages, not the Dutch-speakers.

© 2011 AFP

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