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Monday, June 14, 1999 Published at 11:46 GMT 12:46 UK

World: Europe

Belgian PM falls victim to food scare

Belgian voters delivered a "stunning blow" to the government

The Belgian Prime Minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene, has resigned after his centre-left coalition was defeated in Sunday's general elections.

Mr Dehaene blamed his defeat on the contaminated food scandal, which has brought international bans on many Belgian agricultural products and is estimated to have cost at least $500m.

Brussels correspondent Jonathan Beale: Newspapers are calling the result an electoral earthquake
"It's a stunning blow and a deep disappointment [but] it doesn't surprise me that the food crisis had such an impact," he said.

King Albert II accepted Mr Dehaene's resignation and is expected to begin consultations with the speakers of parliament and the senate regarding the appointment of a successor.

Caretaker capacity

Until then, Mr Dehaene's cabinet will stay on in a caretaker capacity.

Forecasts predict the right-wing Liberals will be the biggest party in parliament, so gaining their first chance to form a coalition.

The Greens and the right-wing Flemish separatist party Vlaams Blok, who want their part of Belgium divided from the French speaking regions, also made big gains.

With three-quarters of the vote counted, Mr Dehaene's Christian Democrats and their three coalition parties were set to lose 17 of their 82-seat majority.

Undermined by scandal

Many pundits say the food scandal, in which feed containing cancer-causing dioxins were given to farm animals, was largely to blame for the government's defeat.

[ image: Jean-Luc Dehaene: Plagued by scandal]
Jean-Luc Dehaene: Plagued by scandal
Before the dioxin scandal broke on 28 May, the coalition, and Europe's longest-serving prime minister, appeared to be cruising towards another victory.

Mr Dehaene had declared the crisis under control but in the days before the poll, chicken, eggs, pork and beef were taken off menus and bans were imposed on the products at home and abroad.

In recent years, his government has been plagued by a bungled investigation into the alleged murder of four girls by a convicted child rapist, political corruption and the death of a refugee while being deported.

But the Belgian prime minister, who was attempting to win a third term in power, has also managed to cut the budget deficit and take his country into the Euro zone.

Changing colours

Predictions for the final count indicate the Free Market Liberals will become the major power in the 150-seat Chamber of Representatives but that they will also need to find coalition partners.

The Greens are set to double their number of seats to 20, which is being seen as further proof that at least part of Mr Dehaene's downfall lay in the food scandal.

The provisional results showed that Vlaams Blok was likely to become the third largest party in the north, behind the Christian Democrats and the Liberals, but jumping ahead of the Socialists.

The full results will be known by Monday but it is expected to be some time before the make-up of the new governing coalition is agreed.

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