/ 15 January 2008

Belgian ‘Octopus’ tackles power sharing

Belgium’s main political parties sat down on Tuesday to thrash out a new power-sharing agreement and try to avoid any repeat of the political crisis that shook the kingdom last year.

Dubbed the ”Octopus”, as its 20 members are drawn from the eight principal parties, the forum has the task of redefining how powers should be shared between Belgium’s federal government and its regions — all by March 23.

”Our country has a great future if we manage to both improve federal competencies and provide more space for … the regions,” said Flemish Christian Democrat Yves Leterme ahead of a first working-group meeting.

Flemish speakers make up about 60% of the 10,5-million-strong population, and they are demanding more autonomy for their relatively rich region of Flanders.

Belgium’s Francophones — living mainly in Wallonia and the officially bilingual Brussels capital region — fear such a move could lead to the break-up of the country. There is also a small German-speaking minority.

Leterme’s party won general elections on June 10, but he was unable to form a government uniting parties from the two main linguistic regions.

Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, who lost power and was acting in a caretaker capacity, was asked by King Albert II to form an interim government to bring an end to one of the worst political crises in the country’s history.

But Verhofstadt insisted that he would not serve beyond March 23.

”It is important that we have, on that date, a strong political willingness, based on texts, so that we can move forward with the state reforms,” said Leterme, referring to reforms on the devolution of powers.

The ”Octopus” group is made up of party presidents, seasoned political experts and former leaders. — Sapa-AFP