Collapse of Belgian coalition talks deepens national crisis

Other News Materials 1 December 2007 20:58 (UTC +04:00)

( AFP ) - The head of Belgium's Flemish Christian Democrats on Saturday abandoned efforts to form a coalition government, after more than five months of fruitless talks, plunging the country further into crisis.

Yves Leterme announced his decision to Belgian King Albert II after the two Dutch-speaking Flemish and two francophone parties involved in talks failed to bridge their differences over devolving more power to the regions.

His move, swiftly accepted by the king, deepens the political crisis in the country where some are even talking of a possible split between the richer Flemish majority to the north and the poorer French Wallonia region to the south.

"The last weeks and months I have done all I can to bring this task to a successful conclusion," Leterme said in the parliament building after throwing in the towel.

"Unfortunately that has not been possible. Our country needs a stable government and reforms that will permit it to tackle its problems head on, as well as improving the functioning of our institutions".

He added that he had been aware, when he had first accepted the task of forming a government "that I was taking a political as well as a personal risk".

He remained available to work towards a solution to the political impasse, he said.

The deadlocked coalition talks have meant Belgium has so far spent 174 days without a new national government.

The heart of the problem is that the Flemish majority wants more power for its own region, a move the Walloons fear would mean they lost out politically and financially.

Leterme, whose Flemish party came out on top in Belgium's general election on June 10, could not bring the parties together. So he decided to abandon his attempt to become prime minister at the head of a Christian democrat-liberal coalition.

In a short statement the royal palace announced that King Albert "had an audience in the early afternoon with Mr. Yves Leterme. Mr. Leterme asked to be discharged of his mission. The king has accepted his request."

The move came after Leterme issued an ultimatum to the four parties to agree to three key points by Saturday morning

When one of the francophone parties refused to endorse his proposals on state reform, that proved the last straw for Leterme.

"It's not just a government crisis, it's a national crisis affecting the states' structure, and who can say, its very existence, " one francophone MP said.

So far no credible alternative to Leterme has been identified to succeed current Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, whose administration continues to run the country despite losing the June election

Thus Leterme's departure would hurl the country will only stoke existing fears, and hopes in some quarters, that the country could eventually split in two.

A spokesman for the far-right Vlaams Belang party, which was not involved in the coalition talks, said Leterme's failure to form a government demonstrated that a federal administration was no longer possible.

"I think this has proven that you can't form a government that represents the interests of both the north and south of the country.

"You don't need to be a separatist to realise that," said party spokesman Yoris Vanhaudhem.

The nationalist party was calling for a government to be formed to deal with day-to-day running of the country "while talks take place about preparing to divide the country," he added.