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Deadlock broken

December 6, 2011

After a record 541 days without a government, Belgium finally has a new prime minister and cabinet. In a divided and indebted nation, the task that lies ahead for premier Elio Di Rupo does not look to be an easy one.

A Belgian flag
The country is deeply divided along linguistic linesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Belgium's record 541 days without a government formally came to an end on Monday with the appointment of French-speaking Socialist leader Elio Di Rupo as prime minister.

Di Rupo, who will have a six-party coalition government, was appointed in a formal ceremony by the country's monarch, King Albert II.

"The King held an audience at the Belvedere Castle tonight with Mr. Elio Di Rupo ... and appointed him prime minister," a statement from the palace said.

The government will be tasked with putting a hefty 180-page coalition agreement into action, agreed upon during lengthy negotiations, with a commitment to enacting profound state reforms and restoring the country's finances.

Belgian premier Elio Di Rupo
Di Rupo is Belgium's first native French-speaking prime minister in decadesImage: AP

Portfolios in the new government are to be equally split between the francophone political forces from the region of Wallonia and politicians from the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders.

The cabinet retains many of the ministers from caretaker government of acting Prime Minister Yves Leterme, although a number of roles have changed.

Among the most significant is a swapping of roles between Finance Minister Didier Reynders and Foreign Minister Steven Vanackere.

The new government still has to thrash out the details of austerity measures that brought 50,000 protesters onto the streets last Friday.

Debts and division

The country's public sector debt totaled 96 percent of gross domestic product last year, a level approaching that of Greece and Italy. It has also been burdened by having to provide the bulk of state guarantees required in the bailout of Franco-Belgian financial group Dexia.

Progress on a deal was made after the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), a party that wants Flanders to break free from the rest of Belgium, exited the talks.

Other stumbling blocks have included reaching a deal on electoral boundaries around the capital Brussels and the devolution of more powers to the regions.

Di Rupo, the son of poor Italian migrants, becomes Europe's first openly gay male leader. The 60-year-old, who speaks no Dutch, is the first native French-speaking prime minister of Belgium since 1979 and the first from Wallonia since 1974.

A poll in the Belgian daily newspaper Le Soir showed just 29 percent of Flemish people had confidence in Di Rupo, while his support among Walloons was 69 percent. Political deadlock ensued after elections in June last year.

Author: Richard Connor (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)
Editor: Holly Fox