Belgium moves to break deadlock

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The Independent Online

Belgium yesterday completed six months without a government after elections on June 10 highlighted deep divisions between the nation's Dutch-speakers and Francophones.

Would-be prime minister Yves Leterme a Flemish Christian Democrat further alienated the county's Francophones at the weekend by comparing their public broadcasting network RTBF with a Rwandan radio station infamous for inciting the 1994 genocide in the African nation.

The comment came in a newspaper interview where Leterme complained the network portrayed him in a bad light. It provoked a storm of protest from French-speaking politicians, making it still harder for his party to find the French-speaking allies it needs to form a working national government.

Leterme acknowledged that his efforts to form a coalition of Liberals and Christian Democrats from both sides of Belgium's linguistic divide are now very much in doubt.

"We have to realize that, after six months, a Christian Democrat-Liberal coalition does not instill confidence, nor does it provide enough guarantees to modernize the nation," Leterme told the daily La Libre newspaper.

Despite his failure to forge a government Leterme insisted he could still become prime minister. "I am and remain a candidate for premier," he said.

Monday's papers however were full of his latest controversy.

In a nation where the relations between the 6 million Dutch-speaking Flemings and 4.5 million Francophones are difficult, Leterme is often seen in the French-speaking south as a Flemish nationalist bent on ripping the nation further apart into separate linguistic regions.

"A Rwandan analogy that shocks," headlined La Libre, echoing comments from across the Francophone Wallonia region. Leterme's standing among Francophones had already hit rock bottom during coalition talks where his party had pushed for greater powers for the regions.

Previously Leterme was ridiculed when he sang the French Marseillaise when asked for the words of the Belgian national anthem and he sparked outrage by deriding Francophones by saying they might not have the intellectual capacities to learn Dutch. He said that comment was meant as a joke.

Following Leterme's inability to break the political deadlock, King Albert II last week asked acting Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt to stay on with the current centre-left coalition to manage day-to-day issues, despite his party's loss in the June elections.

Leterme's Christian Democrat party surged from 21 to 30 seats to become the biggest party in the 150-seat house while Verhofstadt's Flemish Liberals fell from 25 to 18.