BRUSSELS, Belgium – Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt's Liberal-Socialist coalition government resigned Monday, a day after conservatives — led by Christian Democrats — posted big gains in general elections.
Verhofstadt went to the royal palace to hand King Albert II his government's resignation in the morning and will now stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new government is formed.
In the weeks ahead, politicians — split in Dutch and French-speaking camps — will endlessly mix and match political groups to try to arrive at a new government that stands a reasonable chance of survival.
Verhofstadt, 54, conceded defeat Sunday, saying he would leave office after eight years as prime minister, adding, "The voters of our country ... have opted for a different majority."
That majority faces a tough challenge amid calls for more autonomy for Flanders, Belgium's Dutch-speaking northern half, and Wallonia, its Francophone south.
Since the 1980s, the two regions have been given increasing powers of self-rule that have defused somewhat the linguistic squabbles that can paralyze Belgian politics.
Politicians in economically dominant, free trade-minded Flanders — home to 60 percent of the 10.5 million Belgians — demand ever more autonomy, notably in economic areas such as employment but also justice and security. Their traditional complaint is that the long-dominant socialists in Wallonia are a hidebound lot who resist labor and other reforms that are common elsewhere in Europe.
"It is absolutely necessary that in the years ahead we shift" more powers away from the federal government to Flanders and Wallonia, Yves Leterme, head of the Dutch-speaking Christian Democrats, said Sunday.
In his eight years at the helm, Verhofstadt was at pains to beat back such talk and focused on restoring Belgium to economic health and growth by slashing debt and annual budget deficits.
On Sunday, Christian Democrats won 40 of the 150 seats in the national parliament, a gain of 11.
Verhofstadt's Dutch-speaking Liberals and the Francophone liberals won 41 seats, a loss of eight. His Socialist allies won only 34 seats, down 14.
Their most significant loss was in French-speaking Wallonia where socialists have dominated politics for decades. But lately they have gotten mired in corruption scandals and on Sunday became the region's second largest faction after the Liberals.
The far-right, pro-independence Flemish Interest Party has 17 seats and is the third largest party in Flanders. But it is routinely cold-shouldered by other parties because of its harsh anti-immigration views. Wallonia's far-right National front party held on to its only parliamentary seat.
Jean-Marie Dedecker, a renegade conservative who was once Belgium's national judo coach, entered parliament grabbing five seats. Green parties captured 12, a gain of eight.
The outcome points to a further revision of the constitution, which requires a two-thirds parliamentary majority in this divided nation. Dutch-speakers can only vote for Flemish parties and Walloon voters only for Francophone parties, except in officially bilingual Brussels.