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NS profile: Elio Di Rupo

The new Belgian PM's adapatability will be vital "for the leader of a nation with a fractured identi

Apart from the assurance of 'the possibility of a better future' for all its citizens, the inaugural speech of Belgium's new PM, Elio Di Rupo, contained few of the lofty promises that are so typical of these ceremonial addresses. Not only do the circumstances not permit such pledges, they would be just about redundant right now. After eighteen months of negotiations, the mere fact that there is a government seems enough to fully warrant the new cabinet members' broad smiles on the steps of the Belgian parliament this week. The broadest smile of all: that of the prime minister himself.

Di Rupo's patience and negotiation skills are widely credited for bringing Belgium's grueling coalition talks to a good end. Yet while the growing political discord between the country's language groups in recent years has made the establishment of an actual government indeed seem like an astonishing feat, the level of accomplishment of its new leader is better perceived in a wide-angle, biographical view. Between his spotless white shirts with bright red bow-ties and his clean accentless French, Di Rupo's appearance may not give away his origins easily anymore, but today's urbane and powerful politician started out modestly, as the son of an Italian miner.

The youngest and only Belgian-born in a family of immigrants, Di Rupo lost his father in a traffic accident while still an infant, leaving him and his six siblings to be raised by his mother. Di Rupo's father, though, had left his youngest an invaluable, if at the time implausible, gift. The grim Walloon industrial basin to which he had moved his family was also the rough cradle of the Parti Socialiste (PS), the party which allowed Elio to rise through its ranks and now, at the age of 60, assume the office of prime minister.

Elio Di Rupo "has taken revenge on his roots", says Pascal Verbeken, a Belgian journalist and the author of the book 'Poor Wallonia'. In doing that, Di Rupo seems not to have taken comfort in merely overcoming the odds. He triumphed over them. Given his background, obtaining a PhD in chemistry and becoming a lecturer at the University of Leeds at age 26, would by many be considered as an outstanding achievement in itself. Di Rupo, however pushed on to become a popular local politician, a cabinet minister and eventually the uncontested leader of what is arguably the most powerful political machine in Belgium.

Along the way he has acquired the virtue of perseverance, says Verbeken, as well as the "capacity to adapt to wildly different environments". Both will be vital attributes for the leader of a nation with a fractured identity. Apart from the traditional fault-lines between right and left, Belgian politics is also complicated by the linguistic and cultural fissures between Dutch-speaking Flemings, French-speaking Walloons, and the linguistically mixed population of Brussels, which at times seems to form an ethnicity onto itself. Ever since the economic power shifted to Flanders in the sixties, the historical frictions have been translated into a state of chronic yet peaceful political conflict: the Flemish north is always looking to increase its autonomy while the French-speaking south is trying to avoid being left behind.

The virulent and often idiosyncratic debates spawned by these tensions, combined with ideological wrangling about how 11 billion worth of budget cuts -- necessary to bring the Belgian deficit to 2,8 of GDP -- were to be arrived at, caused Belgium's coalition negotiations to last for an exceptional period of 541 days. Di Rupo, who took the helm after several botched formation attempts by himself and other political heavyweights, refused to be rushed though.

True to his training as a scientist, he approached the formation process in a meticulous fashion, edging towards a final deal one knotty issue at a time. "He's a masterful strategist and he's very patient", says Carl Devos, a political scientist at Ghent University. "The downside to his patience, though, is that he's prone to waiting too long". This became painfully clear two weeks ago, when rating bureau Standard & Poor's downgraded Belgium's credit status and jolted the protracted process into rushed weekend talks to attain a budget compromise that could appease the markets and check the soaring interest rates on Belgian government bonds. Di Rupo, antithetical to his temperament, suddenly had to come up with a quick solution.

This time, however, economical imperatives had already provided the Belgian political elite with the sense of urgency necessary to conclude their deliberations. All parties, including Di Rupo's PS, made the amends they could not bring themselves to make a few days earlier. The result: a grand compromise encompassing an agreement on a package of socio-economic reforms and budget cuts, more powers and fiscal autonomy for Belgium's different regions and the division of a contested bilingual electoral district, an issue which had been souring relations between Dutch-speakers and French-speakers for the past years.

As a PM, Di Rupo will now be presiding over a so-called tripartite coalition of liberal democrats, social democrats and christian democrats from both sides of Belgium's linguistic divide. That is an unwieldy coalition, consisting of parties with strongly conflicting interests. Echoes of the tense debates fought around the negotiation tables are likely to resurface in the two-and-a-half years left until the next elections.

To add to its difficulties, the new government can expect to face significant pressures from the outside. The coalition's chief bugbear will most likely be Belgium's other political mastodont, Bart De Wever. The burly, grumpy leader of the New-Flemish Alliance (N-VA) -- who is the ideological as well as physical antipode of the slender, upbeat Di Rupo -- did not find the proposed reorganisation of the Belgian federal state far-reaching enough. He chose to withdraw his centre-right separatist party from the coalition talks this summer, opting for the opposition benches instead. There the N-VA is free to take regular shots at the economically centrist government which has no parliamentary majority on the Flemish side. This is a political oddity in a country where Dutch-speakers outnumber French-speakers 6 million to 4. Especially Di Rupo's centre-right Flemish coalition partners of the christian democrats and the liberal democrats will be electorally vulnerable to De Wever's scornful attacks.

And then there is the possibility that Belgium is visited by a new upsurge of the eurozone debt crisis. "The cabinet is fully conscious of the fact that in coming years it might be necessary to find additional funds amounting to hundreds of millions of euros", Devos notes. "And we can't begin to imagine what would happen if the government suddenly had to pay out on the guarantees it provided to endangered financial institutions such as Dexia bank. That's a Damoclean sword hanging over our heads". Both scenarios would undoubtedly lead to serious strains on the coalition. While the current batch of measures to curtail the deficit is very mild by European standards, it already led the unions to take to the streets last week. And although Di Rupo's party is squarely behind him at the moment, its support does not amount to a blank cheque.

To understand Di Rupo's relation with his base, a journey to the Walloon industrial heartland is instructive. The industrial triangle between Liège, Charleroi and Mons, once the proud economic core of the country, has long been turned into a rust belt. The last furnace at Liège's legendary Arcelor Mittal steel mill -- formerly Cockerill-Sambre -- was shut down almost two months ago in what was the lacklustre finale to the Liège steel industry's idle struggle with extinction. The Walloon mining sector had already undergone the same plight by the eighties. Yet the party that was beat into shape by the wants and discontents of the regions' working classes, is still thriving. Carrying 38 percent of the vote in the last elections, "the Parti Socialiste is a religion in Wallonia", says Verbeken.

One of the main reasons for its sustained success is that the Walloon brand of social democracy is built on a widely branched system of political patronage and the ability to ensure high levels of social security spending. This, however, also opens the party up to outside criticisms of pork-barrel spending and old-fashioned statism. Even within the social democratic realm it has become increasingly isolated as Tony Blair's Third Way swept the European continent in the nineties and noughties. Verbeken: "The PS remains more leftist than its Flemish social democrat counterparts and in fact than any of the social democratic parties in England, France, Germany or the Netherlands".

Ironically, within the PS' ranks, Di Rupo represents a new type of politician. In a recent profile Verbeken wrote for the Flemish paper De Standaard, he paints a picture of a man who is not only an adroit communicator, but also willing to subject ideology to political necessity. "In essence he is a representative of the Third Way", says Verbeken. Less exceptional for a PS politician is Di Rupo's strong drive for power. One of the party officials interviewed by Verbeken even described his leader as being 'giddy' on it.

Whether Di Rupo's enormous influence has been a blessing to his hinterland, is up for debate. His party has managed to revitalise previously forlorn areas, notably bringing new economic life -- and Santiago Calatrava designed railway stations -- to cities such as Liège and Mons, of which he is the mayor. Yet Wallonia's GDP is still lagging far behind that of Flanders and unemployment remains high. The PS' handling of the economy could ultimately make Di Rupo vulnerable, with his own voters as well as his opponents.

"He went to the polls with a message of 'no to austerity'. Now he's going straight against his own base by making spending cuts", says Verbeken. "He's still in an état de grâce, a state of grace, in Wallonia, but that could change if Europe forces further cuts on Belgium. Don't forget that in the Walloon regions that have been hit by severe unemployment, there's not a lot of margin left on social security cutbacks if you want to avoid genuine humanitarian problems."

His detractors, on the other hand, still recognise in him the PS hallmarks of unwillingness to push through economic reforms and an excessive reliance on the state. Especially in centre-right oriented Flanders he is being looked at with suspicion. With friends and foes likely to tug at him from opposite sides, it is hard to tell how Di Rupo would react in case of further economic turbulence.

Somewhat easier to predict, is Di Rupo's strategy to assuage Dutch-speakers' skepticism about him. "Expect a large-scale PR offensive", says Devos. Unfortunately, Di Rupo will not be able to curry their favour with fluent orations in their language. His command of Dutch remains poor. This has been attributed to a hearing problem, but according to Verbeken, he just "doesn't seem to have a knack for languages." This lack of proficiency in the language of the majority of Belgians has led to slip-ups in the past and will likely lead to others in the future.

To be sure there are testing times ahead of him. But Di Rupo has weathered crises before. There are the hardships of his youth of course. And the struggles he had to go through to reach the top of his party which, according to Verbeken, is "a genuine crocodile pond". A crucible moment came in 1996 when the Brussels mythomaniac Olivier Trusgnach alleged to have had sex with the then deputy PM while still a minor. The accusations were subsequently proven to be false, but in the instant crisis that erupted, Di Rupo's career was tottering on the brink, his private life being trawled over by the media. As a result he had to out himself as a homosexual while still living with a woman. Di Rupo later admitted to Francis Van de Woestyne, a journalist and the author of a recently published biography, to have contemplated suicide in case his name would not have been cleared. Pascal Verbeken: "Once you get over something like that, it only makes you stronger. Di Rupo has gone through a wall several times in his life. He is a survivor."

Perhaps the new premier is indeed strong enough to ride out whatever is coming at him, but how about his country? Devos: "There are undeniable differences. But despite that, compromises are still reached. We just completed the toughest budget negotiations in our post-war history." That is indicative of something, he believes. "In theory this country should cease to exist. But apparently the people who live here would still rather try to solve their problems together rather than part ways."