Leterme: Belgium's premier serial quitter

22nd April 2010, Comments 0 comments

Serial quitter Yves Leterme, who threw in the towel for a third time as Belgium's prime minister on Thursday, is as well known at home for a series of faux pas as for his failure to fix bitter national divisions.

Leterme, only restored to the premiership by King Albert II in late November last year after predecessor Herman Van Rompuy was named the European Union's first president, has frequently upset the French-speaking half of his troubled country.

One of the 49-year-old conservative's worst gaffes was calling the small, northern European kingdom of some 10 million people "an accident of history," although many among the Flemish majority to which he largely owes allegiance would firmly agree.

Certainly, singing 'La Marseillaise' when asked if he knew the Belgian national anthem was particularly offensive to the fiercely proud, French-speaking Belgian Walloons.

If he were a comedian, he might well have made any pub list of 10 famous Belgians for a gem of a quip in which he suggested that all the Belgian people share is their "king, national football team and certain beers."

That proved to be a phrase that came back to haunt him in his second stint as head of government as he toiled to keep a lid on divisions based on linguistic lines, but which are mainly echoed in economic and political grievances.

He has also previously disparaged French speakers by suggesting they lack the "intellectual capacity" to learn Dutch.

Leterme, first forced out of office in December 2008 amid a banking bailout scandal, had already boomeranged back to high office as Van Rompuy's foreign minister last summer.

Dubbed by local newspapers as the equivalent of an unlit lantern -- in a French-language play on his name -- Leterme only succeeded in forming a coalition first time out in March 2008.

That followed a crippling political limbo which set in despite winning a general election as far back as June 2007.

As Belgium returns to an uncertain future, Leterme's latest trip to the palace -- where the king withheld his decision on accepting the resignation, preferring first to warn of the dangers of political paralysis -- left hopes for political rehabilitation hanging by a thread.

In the nightmare scenario for the king, a definitive split could eventually come about between Dutch-speaking Flanders and francophone, and economically disadvantaged, Wallonia.

Although fluent in French and Dutch with parents hailing from both of Belgium's main communities, father of three Leterme faced deep-seated opposition when he tried to push through controversial reforms devolving power ever farther to the regions.

He had already offered to resign in July 2008 as Flemish demands for greater autonomy neared fever pitch, but the sovereign refused to let him go on that occasion -- and demonstrated his belief in the former EU civil servant with repeated calls to arms.

While Leterme won praise at the height of the financial crisis for the rapid rescue of two big banks, minority shareholders successfully appealed against his government's orchestration of the sale of troubled Fortis' Belgian assets to France's BNP Paribas.

And in the wake of the ruling, his aides were accused by a top judge of seeking to influence justice officials in the case and his resignation was accepted.

This time, the fatal blow was the age-old divisions -- and special rights accorded to French speakers in three Flemish communes on the outskirts of Europe's officially bilingual capital.

Leterme, whose government was expected to ban the Islamic burqa on Thursday before the decision to stand down was forced on him by the departure from his coalition of a Flemish liberal party, had just five relatively nondescript months at the helm until Thursday.

The highlight was to have been Belgium assuming the EU's rotating presidency in the second half of 2010.

Belgium is proud that it hosts the European Union's main headquarters in Brussels, and faces embarrassment if its turn at the helm of the rotating EU presidency is tarnished by its inability to form a viable government at home.

© 2010 AFP

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