Belgium close to governing coalition after 18-month gap

Elio Di Rupo, head of Belgium's French-speaking Socialists, arrives for talks with political parties in Brussels 30 November 2011.
Image caption Elio Di Rupo could be Belgium's next prime minister

A year-and-a-half after parliamentary elections in Belgium, a new government appears on the verge of being formed, reports say.

Six parties have agreed on a new administration headed by a French-speaking Socialist, Elio Di Rupo.

Talks were hampered by differences between the country's French and Dutch-speaking communities.

But correspondents say the risk posed by the Eurozone debt crisis has focused the minds of political leaders.

A caretaker administration has been in charge since the last government resigned in April 2010 after failing to resolve long-running linguistic disputes.

The separate Dutch- and French-speaking wings of the Socialists, Christian Democrats and Liberals completed the last major hurdle, an austerity budget, on Saturday.

The parties are expected to give final approval to a 180-page agreement on Thursday and a new government could be in place early next week, following party meetings over the weekend, sources close to the talks are quoted as saying.

Political deadlock

Belgium, which held elections in June last year, has set a modern-day world record for being without a formal government.

Mr Di Rupo, 60, would be Belgium's first French-speaking prime minister in three decades. He would also be the first Socialist to take the premiership in Belgium since 1974.

Belgium's borrowing costs soared last week and ratings agency Standard and Poor's cut its credit score.

The downgrade focused politicians' minds on agreeing an austerity budget that aims to balance the books by 2015, removing the last major obstacle for a government deal.

Talks between the six parties, three from the Dutch-speaking north and three from the French-speaking south, had previously been bogged down over how far to reduce social welfare spending and tax the rich.

Absent from the talks and the coalition, however, is Belgium's biggest party, the separatist Flemish N-VA led by Bart De Wever.

Belgium's political deadlock had raised fears the country was heading for a split, separating wealthier Dutch-speaking Flanders, which has 60% of the population, from the French-speaking south.

There was a breakthrough in talks in October over devolving more power to the regions.

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