Belgian PM to resign with Fortis row set to bring down government

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If accepted the move would bring an abrupt end to nine tumultuous months in office for Leterme.

BRUSSELS - Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme went Friday to tender his government's resignation to King Albert II over a legal scandal linked to the break-up of Fortis bank, his spokesman said.

If accepted, the move would bring an abrupt end to nine tumultuous months in office for Leterme, who has struggled to hold off a separate power-sharing row that has repeatedly threatened to bring down his government.

It also raises real questions about who could replace him and end a political malaise that has plagued the kingdom since elections in June 2007.

"The cabinet has decided to tender the resignation of the entire government to the king," spokesman Peter Poulussen said.

The king can choose to accept the resignation, reject it, or call for a period of reflection, as he did in the past, as Leterme struggled to hold a government together amid a power-sharing crisis.

The announcement came shortly after Justice Minister Jo Vandeurzen resigned.

Earlier, a top Belgian judge said that, after a preliminary inquiry, he had "strong indications" but no legal proof that Leterme's office had tried to influence an appeals court.

"Given the limited means available to the inquiry, I was not able to find any proof, in the legal sense of the term, of political influence on the magistrature," supreme court president Ghislain Londers said.

"But there are indubitably strong indications in this sense," the judge said in a "detailed note" to the speaker of the Belgian federal parliament.

For Vandeurzen, a Christian Democrat like Leterme, the note was too much.

"As a human being as much as a politician and minister, this is for me a painful and unacceptable situation," he said in his letter of resignation.

After yet another emergency cabinet meeting, Finance Minister Didier Reynders said: "I hope that we are going to find the capacity to be able to confront the year 2009."

Belgium's government is locked in a complex legal battle with minority shareholders of the banking and insurance group Fortis over the sale of its Belgian assets to French bank BNP Paribas.

Leterme's office stands accused of trying unsuccessfully to persuade the appeals court not to grant a legal appeal by the shareholders against the break-up issued a week ago.

The premier struggled three times to form a government following elections in June 2007, as the northern region of Flanders insisted that any new cabinet should start handing over more federal powers to its three regions.

Despite this battle, he appeared the only man with the necessary political clout to succeed, especially after the king refused his resignation in July even though he had failed to move forward the "community dialogue".

However the 48-year-old Flemish Christian Democrat might now have suffered an irreperable blow with the dismantling of Fortis bank, previously seen as the one act that had brought some lustre to his government.

Fortis group was hastily dismantled in October as the global financial crisis bit, with the Dutch state taking over its Dutch banking and insurance assets and the Belgian government taking over its Belgian banking business.


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