As the citizens of Belgium rang in the New Year, many were drinking to a future with a little stability. After all, 2008 saw the country beset with seething tensions between its two major linguistic groups, the near-failure of its largest bank, and the collapse of a scandal-ridden government after just nine months in power. Now it will be up to Herman Van Rompuy, sworn in as the new prime minister just before year-end, to turn things around in 2009.
Belgium’s previous government, headed by Flemish Christian Democrat Yves Leterme, collapsed in December after a Belgian judge said he had “strong indications” Leterme’s aides had pressured the court over a rescue plan for Fortis, a once-mighty bank felled by the financial crisis. Leterme was also criticized for failing to quell tensions between Belgium’s French and Dutch speakers, whose bickering over regional autonomy deadlocked the government for months. His gaffes often upset French speakers: he once famously confused Belgium’s national anthem with France’s, and claimed the country’s francophones were incapable of learning Dutch.
Van Rompuy, meanwhile, is a strangely reluctant replacement. He admitted just days before being named to the post that he didn’t really want it. Yet though he’s often described as dull, he is seen as a good choice, especially given an economic crisis he calls “the most serious since the 1930s.” A former budget minister, Van Rompuy—a Flemish Christian Democrat, like Leterme—favours pushing through an economic stimulus package drawn up by the previous government. He is respected by French and Dutch speakers alike, and has called for an inquiry into the Fortis affair.
Still, in the turbulent world of Belgian politics, Van Rompuy’s fate is far from clear. An editorial in the Libre Belgique recently predicted backstabbing would break out within his own party. And that’s not the only infighting he’ll likely have to deal with. Belgium’s regional elections are coming up later this year, and could cause the country’s linguistic brawl to boil over once again.