Belgium gets new government, but how long will it last ?
Herald Tribune - March 20, 2008

By Stephen Castle

After a nine-month political crisis that prompted speculation that the country might split apart, Belgium finally got a new government Thursday, but one which many voters believe is too weak to last.

Yves Leterme, leader of the Flemish Christian Democrats, was sworn in by King Albert II, becoming prime minister of Belgium's first permanent administration since elections last June.

During the intervening nine months, warring Flemish and Francophone parties failed to agree on a coalition government in a dispute so acrimonious that it prompted fears that Belgium, formed in 1830, might divide along linguistic lines.

Although those concerns have subsided for the time being, confidence in the new, five-party coalition was extremely low even before it took office.

An opinion poll commissioned by the broadcasters RTL and VTM found that almost two of three voters think the government will fall within the next three years. An article in the newspaper De Morgen likened Leterme's administration to a baby born prematurely and with little prospect of survival.

Leterme, 47, emerged as the victor of elections in June last year but twice failed to form a government after the collapse of complex negotiations. In desperation the king turned in December to the departing Flemish Liberal prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, to lead a caretaker administration.

At the center of the political crisis is the division of powers in Belgium. Many functions of the state are already devolved to regional authorities in Flanders in the Dutch-speaking north, and Wallonia in the poorer, French-speaking south.

But the Flemish parties want more economic power for the regions and that has provoked fears in Wallonia that subsidies from the richer part of the country will dry up.

The new coalition agreement, reached Tuesday after 21 hours of talks, binds the Flemish and Francophone Christian Democrats, the Flemish and Francophone liberals and the Francophone socialists. The more nationalist Flemish parties remain outside the government but one is expected to back it in confidence votes.

With a broad array of political opinion represented and more of the big parties inside the coalition than outside, Leterme almost leads a government of national unity. The posts of foreign, interior and finance minister have not changed hands.

But the five-party agreement does not outline how to reach a new constitutional settlement on which there is supposed to be a detailed deal by July.

"It's not a new or fresh team, it represents continuity in managing the current situation," said Caroline Sägesser, a political analyst at the Centre de Recherche et d'Information Socio-Politique in Brussels. "The real negotiation on the constitutional settlement will take place elsewhere."

Much rests on the performance of Leterme, who, as the son of a Flemish mother and Walloon father raised in an agricultural region near Belgium's border with France, ought to be able to straddle the linguistic divide.

He is bilingual and, like many of his countrymen, has a passion for cycling. But having made his career in Flemish politics, where few votes are won by reaching out to Francophones, he is widely distrusted in the south of the country. Leterme has not served as a federal minister and has little experience of negotiating with the other linguistic community.

French-language newspapers have unearthed a host of past comments by the new prime minister that have been taken as slights by Francophones.

In 2006 he told La Libre Belgique, that "French-speakers are not intellectually-equipped to learn Dutch."

Last year he was filmed singing La Marseillaise, France's national anthem, instead of Belgium's La Brabançonne, confusing the two in what was interpreted as an ironic dig at Francophones.

He also mistakenly referred to Belgium's national day as marking the proclamation of the Constitution instead of commemorating the inauguration of Leopold I, the country's first king, on July 21, 1831.

Analysts point out that Leterme's predecessor, Verhofstadt, was also once viewed with acute suspicion in Wallonia. "Leterme has potential to become more popular in Wallonia as people get to know him better and discover that their worst fears are not realized," Sägesser said. "But he is starting from a very low base."

The clear winner of elections last June, Leterme can claim the backing of 800,000 voters in a country with a population of about 10.5 million.

In most respects Belgium has two, parallel political systems with different parties standing for election in the two biggest communities and appealing to voters through separate newspapers and television channels.

Leterme now faces the task of widening his appeal to Francophones - as prime minister of all Belgium - while not alienating his base in Flanders. With regional and European elections due next year, he is unlikely to take many risks with his core supporters.

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