Coalition finds temporary solution to Belgium's political crisis

Belgian politicians have found a temporary solution to the six-month political crisis that has threatened to pull the linguistically-divided country apart.

The caretaker Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, who is generally judged to have "lost" parliamentary elections last June, will continue as the country's premier until March.

He has persuaded five political parties, two Flemish and three French-speaking, to form a temporary coalition to consider a 2008 federal budget and other pressing issues. The parties Liberals and Christian Democrats from both language communities, plus the powerful Francophone Socialists will also try to agree constitutional changes to resolve differences between the Dutch-speaking north and French-speaking south.

From March, Mr Verhofstadt has agreed to hand over the prime ministership to his bitter rival, Yves Leterme, head of the Flemish Christian Democrats, who claimed victory in the federal elections last June.

Belgian political commentators said that the crisis was far from over.

Mr Leterme, who failed in two attempts to form a coalition, will now lead discussions on constitutional changes. Flemish parties want the federal government to surrender more powers to regional, language-based governments. The Francophones want guarantees for the political rights of French-speakers who live in officially Flemish areas. They also fear a de facto division of the country if too much power is surrendered to the regions.

Opinion polls this week have shown a large majority of Belgians, on both sides, do not wish to see the 177-year-old country split in two. But the Miss Belgium contest in Antwerp at the weekend revealed the tensions between the communities. The winner, Alize Poulicek is of Czech origin and speaks French, English and Czech. She was booed when she failed to answer a question in Dutch.

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