Belgian King Meets Leaders in Bid to Preserve Unity

Belgian King Albert II began consulting political party leaders, starting with a Flemish nationalist and a French-speaking Socialist, in a bid for unity after general elections hardened the nation’s divisions.

Voters yesterday made Bart De Wever, the Flemish nationalist party leader, and Socialist Party President Elio Di Rupo clear regional winners, giving them both claims to the prime minister’s post in a probable six-party coalition.

“Their leadership won’t be questioned in coalition talks,” said Carl Devos, a politics professor at Ghent University, in a telephone interview today. “We’ll probably get simultaneous negotiations as De Wever will seek backing from other Flemish parties and at the same time he’ll need to speak to the French-speaking parties.”

Yesterday’s vote clearly split the country between a conservative-minded, Dutch-speaking north and a leftist-leaning, French-speaking south. All parties say they are eager to seek solutions to Belgium’s decades-long squabbles over finances, language and regional powers, with the country set to take over the European Union’s six-month presidency on July 1.

The royal palace said the monarch first met with De Wever, 39, after his New-Flemish Alliance, or N-VA, won 27 seats in national elections, emerging as the biggest party in parliament. Di Rupo, who led his Socialists to 26 seats in yesterday’s vote, overtaking the Liberals among French-speaking parties, was the second party leader to meet the king.

Special Envoy

After completing his consultations with party leaders, King Albert traditionally appoints a special envoy, known as an “informateur” in French, to investigate possible coalitions.

Di Rupo, 58, told De Standaard on June 12 that it shouldn’t take more than 10 days to start formal coalition talks. De Wever, who won the elections advocating an overhaul of Belgium’s governing structure, will seek a government with a two-third majority needed to make changes to the country’s constitution.

A six-party coalition made up of N-VA, Christian Democrats and Socialists in the Dutch-speaking north and of PS, Humanists and Greens among French-speaking parties would have 100 of the 150 seats in parliament. Such a coalition would reflect the ruling regional governments on both sides of the linguistic divide, signaling that the regions are getting the upper hand in Belgian politics.

Di Rupo’s First

Belgians have witnessed five overhauls of their nation’s institutions since 1970, which has led to the recognition of Dutch, French and German-speaking communities, as well as the creation of three regions: Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, French-speaking Wallonia in the south and the bilingual Brussels capital region. The country has been a federal state since 1993.

Keen to speed up the government formation, De Wever has already offered the post of prime minister to a French speaker in an attempt to facilitate an agreement over the distribution of more powers to the regional authorities.

Di Rupo could become the first French speaker from Wallonia in the job since Edmond Leburton in 1974 as Dutch- and French-speaking Socialists have a combined 39 seats in parliament. That compares with 31 seats for the Liberals and the centrist Democrats’ 26.

Both Di Rupo and De Wever have said they are committed to balancing the budget by 2015. That requires 22 billion euros of spending cuts or tax increases, according to May 19 projections from the Federal Planning Bureau.

Bonds Decline

Belgium’s budget deficit will narrow to 4.8 percent of gross domestic product this year from 5.9 percent in 2009, the Leterme-led government said in March. Belgian bonds fell today, sending the yield on the 10-year securities up 11 basis points to 3.47 percent.

The yield premium investors demand to hold Belgian 10-year bonds rather than German debt of similar maturity rose for the first time in four days today, advancing 3.6 basis points to 83 as of 6:03 p.m. in Brussels. The spread rose to the highest level since March 2009 last week, reaching 107.6 basis points on June 8.

Even as De Wever says that Belgium will eventually “evaporate,” leading to an independent Flanders in the European Union, a breakup of the country is impossible without the French-speaking minority approving it.