Belgian king confronts first real political test

Albert II, King of the Belgians, has been confronted with the first great test of his reign by the political crisis pitting the Flemish and French-speaking communities against each other.

Belgian king confronts first real political test
Albert II, King of the Belgians, has been confronted with the first great test of his reign by the political crisis pitting the Flemish and French-speaking communities against each other.

The three-month deadlock over forming a new government has allowed him to use powers rarely seen or used in modern European monarchies, but were the country to fall apart it would ultimately cost him his crown.

In a Belgium where each linguistic community has its own government and parliament, the king is for many a last bond holding together Flanders and Wallonia.

Albert II has tried to improve things by insisting, since the beginning of his reign in 1993, on the many "riches" of a multicultural and federal state.

But the general elections on June 10 have, as yet, failed to produce a government and revealed that the gulf between them is as deep as ever.

The Flemish community — in the richer north and who account for 60 percent of Belgium's 10.5 million people — voted for parties seeking to devolve more power to the regions, notably to give Flanders control over its economy.

The polls also revealed that the French-speakers, from relatively poor Wallonia in the south, are attached to a strong federal government but that they are not ready to pay any price to save Belgium.

Once just hypothetical, talk of Belgium falling apart is now on everyone's lips as the struggle drags on, with the parties unable to bridge their differences.

Albert II came to the crown aged 59 following the death of his brother Baudouin and was previously best known for his motorcycle and his villa in the south of France.

But now he has been forced to plunge deep into the details of one of the world's most complex systems of federal government.

Despite breaking a hip at the end of June, he has stepped up efforts for a solution, meeting Belgium's political heavyweights in a series of talks at his Belvedere residence, except that is for members of the far-right.

He successively named prominent politicians to collect information on how a government might be formed, negotiate between the parties and ultimately asked would-be prime minister Yves Leterme to form a cabinet.

Indeed the monarch hardly put a foot wrong, apart from heading off on holiday as the crisis ground on.

"His role is to put a bit of grease on the gears, to give things a bit of a push, but he does not have the power of a commander," said Francis Delperee, a senator and professor of constitutional law.

But the influence of this monarch, meant to be politically and linguistically neutral even though Flemish people accuse him of francophone bias, can be decisive in forming governments.

"It's up to him to lay the foundations," Delperee said, "but he can also subtly set the tempo through astute public declarations."

Since the end of last month, royal communiques — short though they have been — have begun to refer clearly to a "political crisis".

But at the end of the day, said Delperee, "it's the Belgians themselves not the monarch who make Belgium. If the Belgians don't want to live together any more there's not much the king can do about it."

After the failure of Leterme, whose style bothered Walloons, Albert II is hoping that another Flemish Christian-Democrat he has called on, Herman Van Rompuy, can finally accommodate all parties and help unite his country.

AFP
Last Mod: 16 Eylül 2007, 16:31
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