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Belgian King Seeks to Keep Premier Leterme in Office

King Albert II sought to prevent Belgium’s government from collapsing, urging Prime Minister Yves Leterme to make a new effort to stay in power at a time of economic and social crisis.

The monarch, 75, refused to immediately accept Leterme’s offer to resign today after the Flemish liberal party withdrew its support for the federal government over a failure to split a disputed voting district.

Instead, he and Leterme issued a joint statement saying that “in the current circumstances, a political crisis would be inopportune and would do serious damage to the economic and social well-being of the citizenry and to Belgium’s role at the European level.”

Belgium will take over the European Union’s rotating presidency from Spain for six months starting July 1 and is one of 15 euro-area nations that have agreed to offer debt-stricken Greece a combined 30 billion euros ($40 billion) of bilateral loans. King Albert kept Leterme, 49, in office once before in July 2008, seeking more time to heal a rift between the nation’s Dutch- and French-speaking communities.

Banking Crisis

The yield premium investors demand to hold Belgian 10-year bonds rather than benchmark German bunds of similar maturity widened after the liberal Open VLD party withdrew its support for the federal government. The spread was at 51 basis points as of 3:38 p.m. in Brussels, compared with 45 basis points at 11:50 a.m. A basis point is 0.01 percentage point.

Leterme finally quit in December 2008 over his cabinet’s role in the breakup of Fortis, which was knocked from its perch as Belgium’s biggest financial-services firm by the banking crisis. He made his comeback as prime minister in November after his successor Herman Van Rompuy was named the European Union’s first president.

Leterme’s remaining four-party coalition still holds a majority of 76 seats compared with 74 for the opposition in parliament, even as his government now has the backing of only Leterme’s Christian-Democratic party among Dutch speakers.

“By exiting the government, we want to maximally raise the pressure on everyone to find a solution,” Open VLD party leader Alexander De Croo told reporters at a briefing in parliament in Brussels. He called upon all Flemish parties to use their majority in parliament to set a “quick” vote on the split of the bilingual Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde voting district, signaling that parliament won’t be dissolved soon.

Political Impasse

French- and Dutch-speaking politicians under the leadership of Leterme have failed to agree on splitting the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde voting district, which encompasses both the bilingual capital and 35 surrounding Flemish municipalities. The constituency allows French-speaking voters living in Flanders to vote for French-speaking candidates from Brussels.

The impasse has prompted Flemish parties to use their parliamentary majority in a bid to obtain the split, a move that so far has been blocked by French-speaking parties invoking a conflict of interest.

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