BRUSSELS Belgium plunged back into political crisis on Tuesday after Prime Minister Yves Leterme tendered his resignation, having failed to push through measures to devolve more power to the regions.
Leterme only became prime minister in March, after nine months of deadlock between parties from either side of the country's linguistic divide that led to speculation Belgium might break apart.
He had set a July 15 deadline for Dutch- and French-speaking parties to agree on a reform of the state and was due to present the plans to parliament on Tuesday.
But late on Monday Leterme suddenly offered his resignation to King Albert. The palace said in a statement early on Tuesday that the king had yet to decide whether to accept the end of Leterme's government or not.
The king is expected to consult senior Belgian politicians before settling on a next step. He could ask Leterme to stay on or turn to another member of his government, such as French-speaking Finance Minister Didier Reynders.
"I think we can talk of a crisis, that's obvious. When the prime minister resigns, even if it is suspended, then there is a crisis," Reynders told RTBF radio.
Leterme's Flemish Christian Democrats, and above all their nationalist NVA allies, had to realise they could not win all their demands for more power for Dutch-speaking Flanders in a constitutional reform that French-speakers could accept, said Reynders, who is to meet all French-speaking parties on Tuesday.
NVA leader Bart de Wever said Leterme's plan consisted simply of putting the issue of power-sharing between the central government and the regions in a deep freeze.
"There is nothing in it," the Flemish nationalist said.
"OVER AND OUT"
A new general election is a further option, although few of the parties currently in government would gain, according to opinion polls.
"Over and out," was the headline in Flemish daily De Morgen.
Political analysts had predicted a short life for Leterme's five-party coalition.
His Flemish Christian Democrats were the clear winners of last year's election with a pledge to grant more power to the regions, a move that French-speaking parties vehemently oppose.
Leterme had found agreement on the budget and social and economic plans, but repeatedly failed to break the stalemate over devolution and the thorny issue of the electoral boundaries around the capital Brussels.
He appeared to have won more time on Monday with a plan to draw the premiers of Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia to the negotiating table along with other community chiefs.
However, Leterme's own Christian Democrats had reservations, while their allies, New Flemish Alliance (NVA), rejected the new plan as simply a further attempt to stall reforms. Leterme could have pressed ahead, but would have broken the alliance.
Leterme's office said in a statement that he had determined a deal could not be reached and that the views of the different communities on how to share power were irreconcilable.
"This shows that the model of consensus at the federal level has reached its limits," the statement read.
(Additional reporting by Paul Taylor; Editing by Catherine Evans)