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Belgian Premier Suffers Election Setback : Socialists Become No. 1 Party, Endanger Martens' Coalition

December 14, 1987|STANLEY MEISLER | Times Staff Writer

BRUSSELS — Prime Minister Wilfried Martens of Belgium, buffeted by discontent over language and austerity, suffered a sharp defeat Sunday in parliamentary elections that dropped his Christian Democrats behind the Socialists for the first time since the end of World War II.

Incomplete returns at midnight indicated that Martens' center-right coalition could manage to hold onto a majority of a few seats in the 212-seat Belgian Chamber of Representatives. But all analysts insisted that no government was possible without the participation of the Socialists, now that they are the largest political force in Belgium.

Most analysts speculated that a new left-center coalition of Socialists and the Christian Democrats would run Belgium but without Martens as prime minister.

The 51-year-old Martens, the most durable prime minister in recent Belgian history, told a national television audience that the results were "a great disappointment."

At midnight, Belgian television projected that the Socialists would have 73 seats in the new Parliament, the Christian Democrats 62 seats and their conservative coalition partners, known as the Liberals, 47 seats. Ecological and regionalist parties would share the remaining 30 seats.

Coalition Discussions

Neither the Socialist victors nor any other politicians announced immediately what their coalition plans were, and most politicians predicted several long days of discussion before the parties could agree on a coalition government and prime minister.

The results, while affording some satisfaction to Socialists, who became the main political party of Belgium for the first time in half a century, generally evoked pessimistic comments on television from politicians and analysts who feared an impending period of unstable government in Belgium and also fretted over the perennial Belgian failure to solve its bitter controversy over language.

The election, in fact, was caused by a conflict over the refusal of Mayor Jose Happart of the six villages known as the Fourons to use the Dutch language, even though the villages are part of the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders. Most of the villagers are French-speaking, and Happart insists that the Fourons should be part of the French-speaking province of Wallonia.

Most Flemish, as the Dutch-speakers are called, do not want to let the Fourons leave Flanders, and the Martens coalition collapsed a couple of months ago when the French-speaking Christian Democrats refused to go along with the attempt by the Flemish-speaking Christian Democrats in the government to discipline Happart. This brought on the election.

The Socialists, according to the midnight projections, made all their gains in Wallonia and the French-speaking areas of Brussels. The Socialists, like all the major parties of Belgium, are actually made up of two political parties, one Dutch-speaking, the other French-speaking. The French-speaking Socialist Party gained six seats during the election, while the Dutch-speaking party gained none.

Guy Spitaels, the French-speaking leader of the Socialists, said the Socialist victory was created both by resentment in Wallonia against the majority Flemish community in Belgium and by worries over the declining economy and the austerity program of Martens.

In a television debate as the returns came in, Happart, a Socialist, said that "the Fourons needed a democratic solution that fits in with the views of the Fouron voters."

But Jean-Luc Dehaene, the minister of social affairs, said that "the election results have not made the solution to the Fourons problem any easier." Dehaene, who, like Martens, is a member of the Dutch-speaking Christian Democratic Party, has been mentioned as a possible leader of a left-center coalition.

Would Not Head Coalition

Martens, who has served for all but eight months of the last eight years as prime minister, ruled himself out as the head of such a coalition. "I have said for a long time that I am tied to my coalition's policy of austerity," Martens told a television interviewer. "I would not remain credible if I then took over a Christian Democratic-Socialist coalition."

If the new prime minister is Socialist, analysts here believe he would probably not be Spitaels, for he does not speak Dutch. Willy Claes, a leader of the Dutch-speaking Socialist Party, is, like Martens, Flemish and can speak both languages. His name has been mentioned as a possible Socialist prime minister.

The outgoing Parliament passed a number of laws empowering the incoming legislature to attempt to pass new constitutional provisions trying to deal with the language controversy. Since these provisions would require two-thirds approval in Parliament, political leaders are expected to try to put together the broadest possible coalition for the new government.

Symbol of Controversy

Although the Fourons are a tiny part of Belgium, many Belgians look on the issue as symbolic of the kind of controversy that might engulf Brussels some day. The capital city of almost a million people is located within Flanders but is mostly French-speaking. It has been designated a special bilingual region temporarily while Flemish and Walloon leaders have fought over its future status.

Not counting Brussels, almost 60% of the 10 million Belgians live in Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north. Roughly one-third live in French-speaking Wallonia in the south.

A few decades ago, Wallonia was regarded as the dominant industrial area of Belgium, and French was looked on as the dominant language. But Wallonia is now a depressed economic area, and the Flemish seemed to have succeeded in making Dutch at least an equal if not the dominant language of Belgium.

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