Belgian king begins talks on forming new government

Flemish nationalist N-VA ahead in votes but six-party coalition retains majority

Belgium began the process of forming a new government yesterday as outgoing prime minister Elio Di Rupo resigned from cabinet and King Philippe met the leaders of the country's main political parties.

With most of the votes counted following Sunday's federal election, Flemish nationalist party N-VA won 33 seats, a gain of six. This was just ahead of Mr Di Rupo's Socialist Party (PS), which secured 24 seats, two fewer than it currently holds.

The Socialists' main coalition partner, the liberal Reformist Movement (MR), was in third place with 19 seats, a gain of three.

Politically divided While the N-VA was ahead in terms of votes, Mr Di Rupo’s six-party coalition retains a majority. It will now fall to the king to lead discussions on forming a new government in a country that is highly divided politically between the Dutch-speaking north and French-speaking south.

The complex political system means that at least four parties – two from each side – are needed to form a coalition government.

"The verdict of the Flemish and French-speaking democracies has never been more divided," N-VA leader Bart De Wever told supporters on Sunday evening. "We don't want a long political crisis, so we also want to take the initiative to see what is possible on the federal level."

King Philippe, who assumed the throne following the abdication of his father, Albert II, last year, received the leaders of the main political parties yesterday afternoon at the Palais Royale in Brussels, and will continue talks today. It fell to his father to negotiate the last government formation talks, which lasted 541 days, after parties were unable to form a coalition.

In the end, a six-party government led by Mr Di Rupo’s Socialists was formed in December 2011, with the N-VA, under Mr De Wever, opting to remain in opposition.

In Belgium's regional elections, also held on Sunday, the N-VA topped the poll in the Flemish regional government, with Mr Di Rupo's PS emerging as the main party in the Wallonia region.

Search for gunman

Meanwhile, police continued to search for the gunman who opened fire at the Jewish Museum of Belgium just before 4pm on Saturday, a day before the country went to the polls in national, regional and European elections.

The victims were two Israeli visitors and a French citizen. A fourth person remains in a critical condition in hospital despite earlier reports that the victim had died.

Police released CCTV footage of the assailant on Sunday in a bid to secure help from the public in identifying the suspect. A man arrested on Saturday was released without charge.

An official in the Brussels prosecutor’s office said yesterday that the investigation had been moved to a federal level, adding that terrorism had not been ruled out as a possible motive for the attack.

Flowers and candles surrounded the site in the busy Sablon area of Brussels where the museum is situated.

The interior ministry raised its terror alert level in the wake of the attack, officials said yesterday.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent

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