Belgian coalition talks collapse as national crisis deepens

BRUSSELS (AFP) — Marathon talks to form a coalition government in Belgium collapsed on Saturday as would-be prime minister Yves Leterme admitted defeat in his attempts to forge an alliance.

Leterme told King Albert II he was throwing in the towel after almost six months of fruitless talks with potential coalition partners from the Dutch-speaking Flemish region of northern Belgium and the poorer francophone south of Wallonia.

The king swiftly accepted his resignation as formal government "formateur" thereby launching speculation as to who he would appoint in his place and plunging the country deeper into crisis.

Leterme had given up the task once before since the June 10 general election put his party in pole position to form a Christian-liberal coalition, involving two parties from each side of the linguistic divide.

"The last weeks and months I have done all I can to bring this task to a successful conclusion," Leterme, the Flemish Christian Democrat leader, said in the parliament building after throwing in the towel.

"Unfortunately that has not been possible. Our country needs a stable government and reforms that will permit it to tackle its problems head on."

He added that he had been aware, when he had first accepted the task of forming a government, "that I was taking a political as well as a personal risk".

He remained available to work towards a solution to the political impasse, he said.

Later his party added to the political uncertainty by saying it would not enter a government without Leterme as prime minister.

The king later received a visit from Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, whose pre-election administration has been taking care of day-to-day business during the political impasse.

Verhofstadt's spokesman said late Saturday that he had not been given any specific mission following Leterme's decision.

The deadlocked coalition talks have meant Belgium has so far spent 174 days without a new national government, a record even in a country so divided that no political party fields candidates nationwide.

The heart of the problem is that the Flemish majority wants more power devolved to its own region, a move the poorer Walloons in the south fear would mean they lose out politically and financially.

In a short statement, the royal palace announced that King Albert "had an audience in the early afternoon with Mr. Yves Leterme. Mr. Leterme asked to be discharged of his mission. The king has accepted his request."

The move came after Leterme issued an ultimatum to the four parties to agree to three key points by Saturday morning.

When one of the francophone parties refused to endorse his proposals on state reform, that proved the last straw for Leterme.

"It's not just a government crisis, it's a national crisis affecting the state's structure, and who can say, its very existence, " one francophone MP said.

A spokesman for the far-right Vlaams Belang party, not involved in the coalition talks, said Leterme's failure to form a government demonstrated that a federal administration was no longer possible.

"I think this has proven that you can't form a government that represents the interests of both the north and south of the country.

"You don't need to be a separatist to realise that," said Senator Joris Van Hauthem, the head of the independentist party's Senate group.

So far no credible alternative to Leterme has been identified and his departure will only stoke the existing fears, and hopes in some quarters, that the country could eventually split in two.

As the feuding parties bickered over who was to blame for the collapse of the coalition talks, some commentators pointed to francophone liberal leader Didier Reynders, head of the biggest party in Wallonia, as a logical choice to pick up the reins as "formateur".

However Belgium has not had a francophone prime minister since the 1970s.