Belgian PM stays on

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Prime Minister Yves Leterme will stay on to fight for constitutional reforms to transfer more powers to Dutch- and French-speaking regions in Belgium.

22 July 2008

BRUSSELS - Prime Minister Yves Leterme rejected calls to step down Wednesday and told lawmakers he will stay on to push for constitutional reforms to devolve more powers to Belgium's Dutch- and French-speaking regions.

"It is me or chaos," Leterme told lawmakers during a special debate in Belgium's lower parliamentary chamber.

The debate was called by opposition parties after Leterme offered his resignation when he failed to get an agreement on reforms.

Opposition socialists, greens and nationalists wanted to use Wednesday's session to force a vote of no-confidence against Leterme's seven-party coalition, which is teetering on collapse after four months in power.

However, Leterme's coalition backbenchers managed to avert a vote and fresh elections after the premier said he keep trying to meet promises he made to voters to get an agreement on reform.

Leterme's about-turn came after he admitted defeat last week in failing to get agreement among his coalition of Christian Democrats, Liberals, Socialists and nationalist hard-liners from both language camps on handing over more money and powers to Flanders and Wallonia.

The failure plunged the country back into a political crisis and appeared to deepen the deadlock between Belgium's 6.5 million Dutch-speakers and 4 million Francophones.

King Albert rejected his resignation offer and appointed three politicians - two Francophones and the leader of Belgium's tiny German-speaking region - to try to find a way out of the split over reform that threatens to break up the country.

The three were to report back to the king and Leterme by the end of the month.

Flemish parties want their half of the country to be more autonomous by shifting taxes, some social security measures, transport, health, labour and justice matters to the linguistically divided regions.

Francophone parties accuse Dutch-speakers of trying to break up Belgium, which gained its independence from the Netherlands in 1830.

[AP / Expatica]

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