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1950: Government falls as Belgians vote for king

The Belgian government has collapsed over a referendum on the return from exile of King Leopold III.

Sunday's vote showed a narrow majority of 57.7% of votes in favour of the king being allowed back from Switzerland. But the result highlighted sharp divisions within the country and cabinet.

There was no majority for the king in the Walloon region or in the Brussels district - but in areas like Flanders, there was a 72% majority for the king's return.

In cabinet, the Liberals argued the king could return to the throne only if a majority in all areas had voted for him.

They refused to recall a joint session of both houses of parliament to rescind the regency law and then pulled out of the Catholic-Liberal coalition, prompting the government's collapse.

The Catholic Prime Minister Gaston Eyskens took the government's resignation to the regent, Prince Charles.

King Leopold has been in exile in Switzerland since the end of the war.

He had been accused of co-operating with the Nazis and displaying fascist tendencies. He surrendered Belgium unconditionally to the Germans in 1940 - despite the opposition of his cabinet.

He spent the rest of the war as a prisoner in his castle at Laken until he was freed by the Allies in 1945.

Parliament barred him from returning to Belgium without its permission.

Voting in the referendum was compulsory. The king's daughter, Princess Josephine Charlotte, 22, flew in from Switzerland to vote.

Former Prime Minister Paul Henri Spaak, who is currently President of the Assembly of the Council of Europe, voted against the king's return. He claimed it would damage the country's social and political stability.

According to some newspaper reports, the King had been hoping for a majority of 60-62%. He had been warned his return to Belgium would trigger a cabinet crisis unless he decided to abdicate.

In Context
Two days after the government's collapse, parliament authorised the king's return.

Efforts continued to form a new coalition government - but protests grew. In Antwerp, 15,000 dockworkers walked out on strike in protest. Other 24 hour strikes were called at factories on the outskirts of Brussels and in the town of Huy.

King Leopold III did eventually return to Belgium in July. More rioting greeted his return and he announced his son, Baudouin, would rule temporarily in his place.

He abdicated the following year and Baudouin officially became king in July 1951. He ruled until his death in 1993 when he was succeeded by his brother Albert II.


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