/ 18 March 2008

Belgian political deal ends nine-month crisis

Belgian political parties announced on Tuesday they had reached a deal to form a new national government, ending a nine-month political stalemate that had threatened to split the country apart.

Prime Minister-designate Yves Leterme, whose Flemish Christian Democrats won elections in June, announced the deal after all-night talks.

Leterme said the five-party coalition government plan ”includes a lot of concrete measures”. He is expected to be sworn in Thursday by King Albert II to take over from interim prime minister Guy Verhofstadt.

The government will then ask for a confidence vote on Thursday in the Belgian Parliament, Leterme told VRT radio, saying he was confident a majority of both Flemish and Walloon lawmakers would back the five-party coalition.

Both the upper and lower parliamentary chambers must approve the new government.

The government plan contains vague promises to get tougher on immigration, cut taxes and boost pension benefits amid worries the country is headed for an economic slump. Detailed spending plans are to be ironed out at a later date when the new government drafts a new budget, officials said.

However, all parties have pledged to create 200 000 new jobs, Flemish Liberal Democrat party leader Bart Somers said.

The agreement follows months of political wrangling that plunged the country into a political crisis due to deep divisions over constitutional reform meant to devolve more powers to Dutch-speaking Flanders and Francophone Wallonia.

The crisis raised widespread fears that the nation’s two linguistic halves no longer shared the same vision or goals, pushing them toward a break-up of Belgium. Leterme’s five-party government plan leaves out any mention of constitutional reform. That issue will continue to be handled by a special panel of lawmakers.

”It was very difficult to get to an agreement among the five parties, that was clear, but the country and the people want a definite government,” said Francophone Socialist leader Elio Di Rupo.

Leterme’s efforts to form a government collapsed in December after he failed to get Francophone parties to commit to shifting more powers to Flanders and Wallonia.

The political breakdown led to a first-ever mainstream debate over whether the country was on the verge of a split, leading to increasing worries among investors and Belgium’s European neighbours over the country’s stability. The crisis also led to a 35 000-strong national unity march in Brussels.

French-speakers fear that devolution would cut funding to Wallonia, their poorer southern region, and from the bilingual capital, Brussels.

To ease tensions, King Albert asked Verhofstadt to stay on as premier until March despite his party losing elections last year.

During Verhofstadt’s interim government, a majority of Belgian political groups agreed to plans for only limited constitutional reform, opening the door for Leterme to form his government.

Leterme’s Flemish Christian Democratic party emerged as the big winner in the June 10 election, but will have to rely on the Francophone Liberal Democrats, Socialists and Christian Democrats for support in the coalition. The only other Flemish party to join the coalition will be Verhofstadt’s Liberal Democrats.

Verhofstadt is set to quit front-bench politics but remain a member of the Belgian Senate.

A deal on who would get what ministries was expected later on Tuesday.

Leterme’s Cabinet is expected to include 14 ministers — split evenly between Flemish and Walloon politicians. — Sapa-AP