Leterme to return as Belgian PM Wednesday

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Belgium's ex-prime minister Yves Leterme -- who quit amid a bank bailout scandal last year -- will bounce back as government chief within 24 hours, incumbent Herman Van Rompuy said Tuesday.

 BRUSSELS - "It's now his second chance. He has all the elements to prove he will be a good prime minister. I hope so for him and for Belgium," said Van Rompuy, who is leaving the premiership to become the European Union's first full-time president.

Fellow ex-premier Wilfried Martens had been asked Friday by King Albert II to organise "a quick and efficient transition" so as not to upset the country's fragile coalition government.

He also confirmed that Leterme, currently the country's foreign minister, would return to the top job for his "second chance".

The smooth transition is especially important in Belgium where tensions between the main Dutch- and French-speaking communities, both represented in the government, are always at the forefront of national politics.

Van Rompuy will hand in his formal resignation to the king on Wednesday morning, after which Leterme will make his royal visit.

The cabinet will remain largely unchanged and Leterme is expected to make an official declaration in parliament at 5:00 pm (1600 GMT), according to Belgian media.

An earlier statement from the palace said political veteran Martens, whose job was to prevent the kind of political crises and paralysis which preceded Van Rompuy's 11 months in power, had handed the king his report on what to do.

The king then relieved Martens of his mission, the statement added, signalling that a deal has been sealed.

The choice of the 49-year-old Leterme comes as no surprise as his name has been circulating widely in the media and political circles since EU leaders tapped Van Rompuy last Thursday.

However his return will cause concern among the francophone community of Wallonia, as he is seen as more radically Flemish than Van Rompuy as regards the richer Dutch-speaking Flanders region's demands for more autonomy.

Leterme, Martens and Van Rompuy are all members of the Flemish Christian Democrats.

Dubbed the "dull one", Leterme came out on top at a general election in June 2007 but failed to form a coalition government till the following year, amid misgivings from the francophone parties.

He was forced out last December by the banking scandal but subsequently cleared of wrongdoing following a probe into Fortis Bank's affairs.

Leterme was rehabilitated politically when Van Rompuy restored him to his cabinet as foreign minister in July.

The former and future prime minister has a string of political gaffes to his name. He once said that all the Belgian people share is "the king, the national football team and certain beers."

On another occasion he sang the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, to the Walloons.

Since Leterme stood down last year Van Rompuy has run the country relatively serenely, a fact which impressed Europe's leaders and could be invaluable as he moves from one Brussels office to another.

However it left Belgium in need of a new leader and Leterme appeared as the only viable candidate.


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