Belgium's king moves to give divided country a government

16th May 2011, Comments 0 comments

King Albert II moved Monday to give language-divided Belgium a government following almost a year of failed coalition talks between the French-speaking south and Dutch-speaking north.

A statement from the palace said Belgium's figurehead sovereign had asked Elio Di Rupo, head of the French-speaking Socialist party, to form a government. "Mr Di Rupo accepted," the statement said.

Di Rupo's party led the field in the French-speaking south at general elections on June 13, 2010, that failed to produce an outright majority.

The other big winner at that election was the separatist Flemish N-VA party headed by hardliner Bart De Wever.

Successive efforts to form a workable coalition have broken down repeatedly ever since, with Albert II naming a succession of special negotiators who have all returned empty-handed to the palace.

Should Di Rupo bring off the challenge, a task that could take time, he would be the first French-speaking politician to take on the premiership in the divided nation of 11 million people, in 32 years.

Sine last year's elections, the country that hosts key international institutions, the European Union and NATO, has been run by a caretaker government headed by Yves Leterme.

But markets and ratings agencies had warned that the failure of a government deal in time could trigger financial tension, raising borrowing costs for a state already in debt to the tune of practically a full year's economic output.

At issue in heated talks during almost 12 months was a deadlock over Flemish demands for greater autonomy, notably in fiscal and social policy, for the 60 percent Dutch-speaking population.

The separatist Dutch-speaking N-VA party led the June 2010 polls with 28 percent of the vote.

But the French-speaking south feared a loss of subsidies for their once wealthy region as well as the start of the break-up of the country.

The N-VA representing the wealthier 6.2 million Dutch speakers complained of footing the national bill for the 4.5 million francophones living in the rust belt of Wallonia.

NV-A chief Bart De Wever dubbed Belgium a failed state with no future, saying pouring money into Wallonia was "an injection like a drug for a junkie."

Also at issue between the two communities was the fate of the capital Brussels, a largely French-speaking city of one million people, with road signs in both languages, enclaved in Flanders.

Seven parties from both sides of the divide were involved in the talks aimed at agreeing a deal to reform Belgium's federal system.

Recently, Harvard academic Robert Mnookin suggested Belgium might need to bring in an international negotiator, such as Finland's Martti Ahtisaari, a Nobel peace prize winner previously sent troubleshooting into Kosovo and Namibia.

"The political system is such that two peoples co-habit separately there," Mnookin said. "Can the country break up? Yes, that might be the case in the next decade."

© 2011 AFP

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