Belgian leader steps aside, early election ahead

BRUSSELS (AP) — Premier Yves Leterme, whose government collapsed last week, stepped aside Wednesday, paving the way for the first woman who could become Belgium's next prime minister.

Marianne Thyssen, 53, will replace Leterme and lead Belgium's long-dominant Dutch-speaking Christian Democrats into early elections, likely in June.

Until then Leterme's five-party alliance of Christian Democrats, Liberals and Socialists from both sides of Belgium's linguistic divide stays on a caretaker role.

If Thyssen's party remains Belgium's largest in elections, she will likely form the next government and become prime minister.

"We do not support the end of Belgium, but a reform of the country," she told reporters. "We are not for chaos, but for responsibility. Not for extremism but ... serenity."

Under Leterme, Belgium has known little of the latter.

Linguistic disputes — rooted in history and economic differences — have long dominated national politics in this country of 6.5 million Dutch-speakers and 4 million Francophones in recent years.

On April 22, Leterme's government collapsed in a dispute between Dutch- and French-speaking politicians over a bilingual voting district. Dutch-speaking coalition parties accused their Francophone partners of refusing to break up a Brussels-area voting district that the constitutional court ruled illegal in 2003.

The collapse of Leterme's government was remarkable as it was Leterme who said all that was needed to resolve the voting district dispute was "five minutes of political courage." That was in 2004.

Belgium is made up of three regions: Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, economically lagging Francophone Wallonia in the south, and officially bilingual — but largely French-speaking — Brussels in the middle. The areas have some autonomy but that has not ended linguistic spats between politicians.