Belgium woke up to a new political crisis Tuesday when it became clear that its five-party coalition government led by Prime Minister Yves Leterme had broken down after only four months in office.
Yves Leterme's suitability as prime minister has been in question since last year's election
Flemish Christian Democrat Leterme handed in his resignation to Belgian King Albert II late Monday night after it became clear he would not be unable to broker an agreement on the basis of constitutional reform or a power-sharing deal that has split the country in two.
But after a four-hour meeting with his prime minister, Albert rejected the resignation of the government, instead favoring a deliberation period where he would consider whether to accept the move. The royal palace said the king would begin consulting political leaders from both sides of the linguistic divide this week.
Leterme's government apparently crumbled after failing to find common ground on a reform plan before the prime minister's self-imposed July 15 deadline. A contributing factor was the ongoing cultural differences between the Dutch-speaking Flemish people and the French-speaking Walloons.
Both sides are struggling to increase their influence in the country, with the Flemish -- representing some 60 percent of Belgium's 10.5 million people -- demanding increased responsibilities for their territories. In particular the reorganization of the multilingual constituency of the Brussels region was under dispute.
Flanders, Belgium's Dutch-speaking northern half, craves more regional powers to reflect its prosperity. It also resents subsidizing the less affluent, French-speaking Wallonia region to its south.
Linguistic divide splits coalition
Affluent Flanders resents propping up poorer Wallonia
Leterme said in a statement the differing views of the linguistic groups could not be reconciled at present. "It appears that the communities' conflicting visions of how to give a new equilibrium to our state have become incompatible," Leterme said.
But he added that "state reform remains essential", implying that with or without him at the head of government the linguistic community issue will continue to haunt Belgium.
It is the third time that the 47-year-old Flemish conservative has failed to bridge the deep divisions between Belgium's Flemish and French-speaking communities over whether, and how, to devolve federal powers down to them.
The government, which includes Conservatives and Liberals of both language groups as well as Francophone socialists, has only been in power since March.
The head of the Francophone Conservatives, Joelle Milquet, earlier said she regretted Leterme's decision, and called for measures to avoid a governance crisis, according to a statement quoted by Belga.
False dawn for Belgian stability
Leterme was hospitalized during recent negotiations
Leterme's resignation ushers in a new period of uncertainty, just as Belgium appeared to have found some sense of stability following a six-month period in which no government could be formed after June 10 elections last year.
After the July 2007 elections, the on-going differences between Dutch- and French-speaking politicians had triggered the longest government crisis in Belgium's history.
Since that crisis, French speakers have agreed to enter into reform talks, realizing it was perhaps the only way to stop Belgium breaking up, which almost one in two Flemish speakers want, according to a recent opinion poll.
French-language parties expressed surprise Tuesday that the premier had given up.
"There is a strong willingness among French parties to go deep into these reforms," deputy premier Didier Reynders, who leads the French-speaking Liberals, told Belgium's Premiere radio.
"I think we still have time to find a solution in the hours and next few days within the framework of what we already have," he said. "Otherwise we'll have to look for something else."
"The king now has to be given time to consult a number of people," Reynders said. "It's far too early to say what will happen next."
Uncertainty returns to politically blighted kingdom
The question of what will happen next was on most people's minds.
King Albert (r.) must now decide on Leterme's resignation
The king could flatly refuse to accept Leterme's resignation and demand that he stay on, either in his current capacity or with a fixed and limited mandate.
A new caretaker government could also be installed.
In this tense climate, no one wants early elections, according to analysts, and indeed the problem needs to be resolved if it is to avoid boosting fringe parties in the fast-approaching regional elections in June next year.
Belgium's Flemish press predicted "chaos".
"No one can predict what is going to happen now," said the centre-left daily De Morgen, reflecting on the "chaotic atmosphere".
"Total Chaos," headlined the tabloid Het Laatste Nieuws.
"A country on the edge of a precipice," said French-language Le Soir.
One thing was sure: parties of all political stripes were due to hold crisis talks to try to chart a way ahead, and with parliament set to take a summer break on Friday, a decision must come before then so deputies can endorse it.