17 months of stalemate at an end as new Belgian PM sworn in

Socialist Elio Di Rupo has taken the oath as Belgium’s first Francophone prime minister in decades, formally ending a world-record 541 days without a proper government.

In a ceremony at the ornate royal palace in Brussels yesterday, the son of Italian immigrants completed a remarkable personal journey that took him from an impoverished childhood in Belgium’s poor post-industrial south to become his country’s leader.

Mr Di Rupo is the first native French-speaking prime minister of Belgium since 1979 and the first from the region of Wallonia since 1974. He is the also first openly gay person to be premier.

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Amid small talk and jokes with King Albert II, the 13 ministers and six state secretaries took the oath, much to the relief of the nation of 6.5 million Dutch speakers and 4.5 million French speakers frustrated with politicians’ inability to form a government over linguistic differences.

The monarch said during the ceremonies that “there is a lot of work at hand”.

Mr Di Rupo will lead a grand coalition of Socialists, Christian Democrats and Liberals, each split into Dutch- and French-speaking parties. Together, they have set out to make Belgium’s high debt and worsening economic situation the government’s main priority.

Outgoing finance minister Didier Reynders, a Francophone liberal, is the new foreign minister, while Dutch-speaking Christian Democrat Steven Vanackere made the reverse move.

Dutch-speaking Socialist Johan Vande Lanotte, who is experienced in finance and budgetary issues, is economics minister.

Belgium’s credit rating was downgraded less than two weeks ago, a move that spurred the negotiating parties into agreeing on a budget almost overnight.

Belgium has had only a caretaker government since 13 June, 2010, as a series of negotiators tried and failed to bridge the divide between the country’s linguistic groups.

Mr Di Rupo’s knowledge of Dutch has long been criticised as insufficient, but as he made the presentation of his ministers to the king, he went out of his way to introduce some of them in the nation’s majority language. He has promised to improve his language skills during his term in office.

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A poll in newspaper Le Soir this week showed only 29 per cent of Flemish people have confidence in Mr Di Rupo, although his support in French-speaking Wallonia was 69 per cent.

N-VA, a party that wants Flanders to break free from Belgium, has 35 per cent of support among Flemish voters.

Talks, which included N-VA, were deadlocked for months, prompting speculation that 181-year-old Belgium could break apart.

The N-VA’s eventual exit from the negotiations opened the door for a deal resolving electoral boundaries around the capital Brussels, devolution of more powers to the regions, and financial transfers, issues over which Belgium’s linguistic groups have argued for years.