Belgium heading for elections as government collapses

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Belgian King Albert II accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Yves Leterme's five-month-old government yesterday (26 April), plunging the country into a crisis as it prepares to assume the rotating presidency of the EU.

The monarch asked Leterme, 49, to stay on in a caretaker capacity, the palace said in a short statement four days after the coalition collapsed over a standoff between Dutch- and French-speaking parties.

The king had tried to defuse the situation over the weekend, consulting with party leaders and asking Finance Minister Didier Reynders, a French speaker, to try to mediate and break the impasse over a dispute between French and Flemish speakers over language and political rights. Reynders asked to be discharged on Monday.

Unless the king comes up with a new initiative, Belgium appears headed for an early election before the next scheduled one in 2011.

That could throw into chaos Belgium's preparations for its six-month presidency of the European Union, due to start in July.

Leterme, who has now stepped down twice in three years, said in a written statement that he regretted a negotiated solution had not been found.

"While waiting for initiatives from the head of state, the government will continue to ensure effective monitoring of current affairs in the interest of the country and citizens," the statement said.

Economists are concerned that political paralysis in the country of 10.6 million people could harm efforts to bring its national debt back below 100% of gross domestic product.

GDP fell 3% last year and is likely to grow a modest 1% in 2010. The budget deficit for this year is put at 4.8% of GDP.

In an interview with the French-language state broadcaster, Mark Eyskens, a former prime minister, warned: "If we have a deep political crisis, we could find ourselves in a similar position to Greece. We have a debt of over 100% [of GDP] that we must finance."

Some Belgian media have already begun questioning the value of keeping their 180-year-old country together.

Leterme tendered his resignation on Thursday (21 April) after the Flemish liberal party, Open VLD, withdrew from his government.

Open VLD said it had lost faith in the coalition because of its failure to resolve a dispute between French- and Dutch-speaking parties over electoral boundaries around the capital, Brussels – a complex and extremely divisive issue.

To complicate matters further, the Constitutional Court has said a solution must be found before elections can be held, leaving politicians to debate whether an election could go ahead as well as blaming rivals for the crisis.

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

Belgium's political institutions are complex, with most of the political power organised around the need to represent the main cultural communities.

Consecutive revisions of the constitution (in 1970, 1980, 1988 and 1993) established a unique federal state with political power separated between three levels – the federal government, the three language communities (Flemish, French and German) and the three regions (Flanders, Wallonia and the Brussels-Capital Region).

In 2007-2008, community tensions brought about a political crisis of such magnitude that many observers speculated about the possible partition of Belgium. To defuse the crisis, a renewed effort to reform the constitution and re-balance power is currently underway. In 2008, another crisis related to Fortis bank accelerated the fall of Yves Leterme's first government. 

The capital Brussels is a majority French-speaking city, but its periphery is Flemish. The 100,000 or so French speakers who live on the city's margins enjoy special privileges, like being able to cast their ballot in the bi-lingual electoral district of Brussels-Hal-Vilvoorde (BHV). 

But Dutch-speaking parties oppose this privilege and have called for the district to be split into separate entities between Brussels proper and the Flemish municipalities.

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