Belgium's would-be PM faces tough second chance

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BRUSSELS, Oct 1 (Reuters) Belgium's would-be prime minister Yves Leterme faces an uphill battle in his second bid to form a government as he struggles to persuade francophones to accept greater devolution of powers to the regions.

Reaction has been guarded at best to King Albert II's decision on Saturday to give the Flemish Christian Democrat leader and former premier of Flanders a new chance to form a centre-right coalition.

Leterme's first attempt to bring together his Christian Democrats, the Liberals and their French-speaking counterparts ended abruptly in August as Flemish demands to give the regions more power met with a firm francophone ''non''.

The impasse prompted media to speculate that the 177-year-old kingdom might be better off breaking apart. Such talk has faded, but sceptics wonder if Leterme will fare any better now, almost four months after the June general election.

A cartoon in French-speaking Wallonia's leading tabloid La Derniere Heure today showed Leterme taking a circular car ride and stepping out in exactly the same spot.

''We certainly cannot say the crisis is resolved,'' said Kris Deschouwer, political scientist at Brussels Free University. ''There are still very difficult negotiations ahead.'' Leterme's Christian Democrats emerged as the clear winners of the election promising a grand reform of the state, but they need francophone partners for a majority in parliament.

Leterme wants the regions to win control of labour market policy, have more say in healthcare and be able to vary taxes.

Belgium's regions and linguistic communities already rule over roads, housing, agriculture, education and culture.

Wallonia feels it will lose out if, for example, richer Dutch-speaking Flanders can offer lower corporate tax.

Leterme was the first reigning premier of Flanders set to become Belgian prime minister, in itself a hard pill for French-speaking voters to swallow, but he further alienated them with barbed comments and a failure to sing the national anthem.

Commentators believe he will now soften his tone and seek to conduct talks behind closed doors and not via the media.

''One thing is for certain -- his working style will be very different from his first attempt,'' said Flemish daily De Morgen.

A greater sense of urgency -- it is 113 days since the election -- should also focus minds, along with a greater acceptance of the need to compromise.

''We are world champions in working out difficult situations,'' said Deschouwer.

The Christian Democrats and their separatist allies, the N-VA, have probably accepted that the reform of the state they dream of will only come in stages.

Carl Devos, political scientist at Ghent University, believes they may settle initially for a redrawing of the political boundaries in the region around Brussels into separate French- and Dutch-speaking areas, a highly emotive issue.

''There won't be a big bang, but things may come in small steps.

The idea of a grand reform of the state or also the split-up of Belgium is pure science-fiction,'' Devos said.

REUTERS SKB KN1805

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