Ousted Belgian premier vows to unite rival parties
The Guardian - December 4, 2007

Raf Casert in Brussels

The outgoing Belgian prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, said yesterday he would seek to end the deadlock in negotiations between the country's Dutch-speaking and Francophone parties, six months after he was defeated in elections.

King Albert asked the Dutch-speaking Liberal to end the stalemate in coalition talks because on both sides of the nation's linguistic frontier parties have refused to yield to the long-held Belgian principles of consensus politics.

"Our nation is going through one of the most serious political crises of the past decades," Verhofstadt said. "Our country's image suffers and our political and common problems are not dealt with. This situation cannot and should not continue," he said.

The return of Verhofstadt was a stunning political reversal after the Christian Democrat election winner, Guy Leterme, had failed to broker a coalition between the two political groups. He could not overcome the linguistic divisions.

In the elections the Christian Democrats and Liberals together won 81 of the 150 legislative seats.

Leterme returned his mandate to broker a government to the king on Saturday, after which Verhofstadt suddenly returned to the political centre after leading a caretaker government.

"I hesitated a long time. The voter made a choice on June 10 and I reached my conclusions from the loss of my party as party and government leader," he said.

After eight years in charge of Belgium, the election loss was generally seen as the end of Verhofstadt's national political career.

"At my insistence, it will be very short and limited in scope," he said of his task. He will now contact political leaders to bring them back to the table.

Negotiations to form a government collapsed last weekend over demands for more autonomy from northern Dutch-speaking Flanders, while Francophone Wallonia seeks continued centralised leadership.

If Verhofstadt is asked to lead an emergency government he could take more sweeping financial measures and push through social and economic legislation that has wide backing in parliament.

The coalition talks between Christian Democrats and Liberals - each split into Dutch and French-speaking camps - ran aground because prosperous Flanders demanded more autonomy to run its affairs independently from poorer Wallonia, which insists on a strong Belgian link to assure financial solidarity.

More regional autonomy was a key election issue for the Flemish Christian Democrats, Belgium's largest party, and their more radical sister party, the New Flemish Alliance. Both blame poor governance in Wallonia for the region's persistent double-digit unemployment rate.

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