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Europe

Belgium Casts Around for New Leader Amid Political Turmoil

Former Belgian leader Jean-Luc Dehaene has emerged as a strong contender to fill his country’s vacant prime ministerial post after Yves Leterme quit the position Friday, Dec. 22.

Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme

Yves Leterme quit the prime ministership after only 10 months in office

Belgium's King Albert II accepted Leterme's resignation following a Belgian Supreme Court report on allegations that his aides had sought to influence a court ruling connected with the break-up of Belgian bank Fortis.

The collapse of the government was the country's third political crisis in under a year, and leaves five coalition parties to fight over who should pick up where Leterme left off.

The political crisis leaves Belgium facing a period of deep uncertainty at the worst possible time, with the economy sliding into recession and investors' confidence at a low as a result of the global financial crisis.

Media looks to Dehaene

Former Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene

Former Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene's experience could stabilize his country

Though he has been out of Belgian politics for 10 years, Dehaene, a Flemish Christian Democrat, is seen by the Belgian media as a likely prime ministerial replacement.

Though his name and face were pictured on a number of Belgian dailies Monday, Dehaene has declined to comment on reports he could be called upon to head an interim government until parliamentary elections could be held in June 2009.

The 68-year-old led Belgium from 1992 to 1999.

"I think there's a high chance that it will be Dehaene," said Carl Devos, political scientist at Ghent University. "He has the experience, he's been prime minister, and would be an effective crisis manager."

Fragile unity

Political stability in this country of just over 10 million people has been marred by repeated disputes between representatives of the Dutch-speaking Flanders region and those from the French-speaking southern region of Wallonia.

Flemish leaders have called for greater powers for Flanders, where roughly 60 percent of the country's population resides, while Walloons say such a move could lead to a partition of the country.

A map of Belgium

Though slightly smaller than Wallonia, Flanders has a much larger population

Flanders established itself as the dominant economic power of the two regions, with higher productivity, more investment and lower unemployment rates.

Fortis dilemma

The formation in March of Leterme's government, which included conservatives and liberals from both of Belgium's language groups as well as Francophone socialists, resolved a nine-month political crisis -- the longest in the country's history -- following the June 2007 elections.

But Leterme was unable to conquer the hearts of Belgians, and in particular those of the Walloons, who viewed his plans for greater regional autonomy with deep suspicion.

The fall of Leterme's government centres on allegations that his office tried to influence a court ruling over the sale of Fortis's Belgian operations, which was decided by the government but opposed by some 2,000 shareholders.

French bank BNP Paribas has since said it would no longer proceed with its plan to buy a majority stake in Fortis, one of Europe's most notable victims of the global credit crunch.

Leterme has denied trying to meddle in the affairs of the judiciary, but has admitted that his office did contact judges prior to the ruling.

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