|The coalition includes 12 cabinet ministers – six from the Flemish north and six from the French-speaking south [AFP]
Belgium has sworn in a new government after a record-breaking 18 months of political deadlock.
Elio Di Rupo, a Socialist leader, has become the first native French-speaking prime minister of Belgium since 1979, as well as the first son of immigrants and the first openly gay person to be premier of the country.
“I swear fidelity to the king, obedience to the constitution and to the laws of the Belgian people,” Di Rupo said on Tuesday in the country’s three languages – French, Dutch and German – at the royal palace in Brussels, the capital.
Di Ruppo, who was appointed by Belgium’s king to resolve a linguistic dispute that was threatening to split the country, replaces Yves Leterme, who headed the interim government for the last year and a half.
Belgium is divided between Flanders, a predominantly Dutch-speaking northern region, and Wallonia, a mainly French-speaking southern region. The split had been a major cause for the country’s failure to yield a government after parliamentary elections in June 2010.
The coalition government includes 12 cabinet ministers – six from the Flemish north and six from the south. It retained many of the ministers from the caretaker government of Leterme, but in different roles.
Steven Vanackere, a Flemish Christian democrat, became finance minister and Didier Reynders, a French-speaking liberal, became foreign minister, a straight job switch.
It took soaring borrowing costs and a Standard & Poor’s downgrade from AA+ to AA late last month to convince Belgian politicians to put aside their differences and clinch a coalition deal.
At the top of the agenda for Di Rupo when he outlines the new government’s policy to parliament on Wednesday will be a planned $15b in budget cuts, the toughest austerity measures in 70 years.
With debt at 96 per cent of GDP last year, just behind Greece and Italy in the eurozone, the coalition has pledged to balance the books by 2015.
But many economists say Belgium might not achieve the 0.8 percent growth the budget foresees.
The new government, an unlikely alliance of Socialists, Christian Democrats and Liberals from both sides of Belgium’s language divide, also plans further devolution of powers to regional assemblies.
But having already lost a year a half to the political wrangling, Di Rupo has only two and a half years left, “which is very little to clean up public finances, adapt our socio-economic model to the 21st century and implement a reform of the state,” said an editorial in Le Soir, the French newspaper.
Di Rupo, a career politician with a rags-to-riches life story, also comes burdened with controversially poor Dutch.
“I’m going to work on it,” Di Rupo promised. “I will reply in Dutch in parliament, even with mistakes.”