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Two "rebirths" in Belgium

Much of the world has been fascinated by the “rebirth” of Rom Houben, the Belgian car crash victim believed to have been in a coma for more than 24 years now discovered to be conscious but trapped in a paralyzed body.

In his homeland, however, headlines have been dominated by the political renaissance of Yves Leterme, who is expected to be sworn in as prime minister on Wednesday just over a year after he was forced to resign the premiership after a bungled bank bail out.

Leterme’s previous government lasted just nine months, during which he earned a reputation for political gaffes and was widely blamed for exacerbating tensions between the country’s Dutch- and French-speakers.

His return to power is due to the departure of his successor and predecessor Herman van Rompuy who was appointed by European Union leaders last week as their first permanent president, largely on the basis of his success in persuading Belgian politicians to focus on the economic crisis rather than their linguistic divisions.

Leterme’s second government will be the fourth in the two-and-a-half years since he led his Flemish Christian Democratic party to victory in the country’s last parliamentary elections in 2007.

This time around, Leterme is tasked with resolving by Easter a bitter dispute over the voting rights of a French-speaking minority living in officially Dutch-speaking suburbs of Brussels.
Should he fail, Belgian politics may well fall back into the state of paralysis that followed the elections, when linguistic squabbling left the country without a fully functioning government for almost a year.

If that’s the case, Leterme may well be forced to think back to the words Houben typed out with his little finger this week as he described his years unable to communicate with the outside world: “powerlessness, utter powerlessness.”