Obituary: Edmond Leburton

Edmond Leburton, Prime Minister of Belgium from January 1973 to January 1974, was the last native French speaker and also the last member of the Socialist Party to hold that office. His fall marked the polarisation of Belgian politics into their regional components, a process which proved fatal to his party.

Leburton was a true Walloon from Waremme, a small town west of Liege. He was educated at the University of Liege. During the Second World War he joined one of the paramilitary resistance units, the Armee Secrete. Wallonia was traditionally a socialist area, and Leburton joined the party. He was elected in 1946 to the House of Representatives, of which he remained a member until 1981 (becoming speaker in 1977-79). Before that he had been a controller of labour and a chef de cabinet at the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare.

He was a specialist in welfare questions and, as Minister of Public Health (1954-58) in Achille Van Acker's Socialist government, and of Social Security (1961-65), he laid the foundations of the Belgian medical insurance system, which was the cornerstone of a generous welfare state.

The Socialists were forced into a coalition with the Roman Catholic Christian Socialists, and Leburton became a vice- premier in government, from 1969 until 1971. When the coalition government led by the Catholic Socialist Gaston Eyskens resigned in November 1972 over the Dutch/French linguistic disputes besetting the country, Leburton, who had become co-chairman of the Socialist Party the previous year, was approached by King Baudouin to form a new administration.

After protracted negotiations with other party leaders, he was able to present his government on 25 January 1973. It was a broad coalition drawn from the Christian Socialists, the Socialists, and the Liberals. Then aged 58, Leburton was the first Socialist prime minister since the fall of Van Acker in 1958. He was also to be the last.

From the start his government was beset by scandals. Allegations of corruption over telephone contracts for the state post office led to the resignation of a secretary of state, and the long drawn-out affair, with its commission of inquiry, eventually claimed another minister. A second, more significant, scandal, was the Ibramco affair. This arose out of an agreement between the Belgian Government and the National Iranian Oil Company to set up an oil refinery in the socialist heartlands near Liege. Too many decisions about the project had been made during the period of the caretaker administration before Leburton had taken office, and too many members of the Socialist Party had tentatively been approached to sit on the board of Ibramco, the jointly held company which was to exploit the refinery.

Leburton's response was to delay the signing of the contract. As a consequence the Iranians pulled out. He reshuffled his government in October, but by January 1974 he could no longer keep the coalition together. Several of his fellow Socialists resigned, and, even before the Iranians pulled out, the Christian Socialists and the Liberals had indicated their opposition to the scheme. Leburton resigned on 19 January.

His departure accelerated the pace of Belgian political life. The elections held two months later were a watershed, as the results showed a growing polarisation of politics along linguistic lines: most Christian Socialist representatives were now Dutch speakers, and most Socialists were French speakers. With the country moving inexorably towards a federal state of great complexity, the historic Socialist Party of Wallonia dwindled in size and influence and, in Liege itself, was absorbed by further scandals (including the murder of Andre Cools, Leburton's successor as co-chairman of his party).

Leburton was above these things. His political base had been Waremme, whose bourgmestre, or mayor, he remained from 1947 to 1987. He ensured that the town was linked up to the new motorway. He was greatly respected, and he was known in Waremme as the "Big White Chief", not least because of his shock of white hair.

John Rogister

Edmond Jules Isidore Leburton, politician: born Waremme, Belgium 18 April 1915; Mayor of Waremme 1947-87; Prime Minister of Belgium 1973-74; married 1947 Charolotte Joniaux (two sons); died Waremme 15 June 1997.