Belgium’s new gay Socialist premier: from rags to riches

The Belgian premier waves form a car after an audience with King Albert II/AFP

BRUSSELS, Dec 6 – Elio Di Rupo, who becomes Europe’s second openly gay government leader when sworn in on Tuesday as Belgium’s new premier, is a 60-year-old career politician with a storybook background.

Born to an Italian coalminer father and illiterate mother in a 1951 migrant shanty-town, Di Rupo will be the first French-speaking leader of language-divided Belgium in more than 30 years and its first Socialist prime minister in almost four decades.

A statement from Albert II’s palace said late on Monday: “The King this evening received Elio Di Rupo at Belvedere castle and named him prime minister.”

He takes over from Flemish centre-right caretaker premier Yves Leterme after negotiating an end to the longest political impasse in the country’s history – a dubious world record 541 days without a government.

Ironically, financial markets helped Di Rupo conclude the 18 months of tortuous negotiations, when a sudden credit downgrade from AA+ to AA lent new urgency to talks between six parties to finalise a coalition deal.

Ridiculed for his poor command of Dutch, spoken by 60 percent of the country’s 10.5 million people, Di Rupo brought together three French-speaking parties with three from wealthier Flanders, where separatists are fast gaining a deep hold.

“The agreement is fragile and the cultural gap within Belgium is deepening. It won’t be a party,” warned analyst Pascal Delwit.

The new coalition notably excludes a powerful pro-independence Flemish party that won the majority of votes in Flanders at the last June 2010 elections.

One of the few centre-left voices in crisis-hit Europe, the soft-spoken politician with the mop of dark hair and craze for bow-ties takes office committed to cutting 11.3 billion euros off the national budget despite trade union anger.

No stranger to hardship, Di Rupo claims to have saved the best of the welfare system in Belgium’s upcoming budget.

The last of seven children, he was a year old when his father died and was left in the care of his mother while brothers and sisters were farmed off to welfare institutions.

Biographers claim he owned a single pair of trousers, while one of his former teachers said he admitted when a teenager to “having two shirts and two pairs of pants my mother washes constantly”.

The young Di Rupo was bright, a talented orator, and a natural leader, the teacher said. He went on to university, graduating with a PhD in chemistry.

By then Di Rupo was involved in leftwing politics, joining the Socialist party at age 17.

In 1999, he took its helm, winning consecutive seats as member of parliament, senator, European MP, deputy premier, head of the southern government of Wallonia and mayor of the city of Mons.

Like Iceland’s Johanna Sigurdardottir, Di Rupo, a quiet if forceful politician, is discreet about his sexuality, keeping his private life private in a country where the issue triggers little talk.

According to a just-released book of interviews, he came out a little by chance in the mid-1990s after being wrongly accused of abuse during the scandal caused by Belgian serial child killer Marc Dutroux.

He is quoted as saying: “‘This is totally false,’ I said as a crowd of journalists milled around. One of them said: ‘But people say you’re homosexual?’ I turned around and said ‘Yes. So what?’ I’ll never forget that instant. After my reply everything went silent. It was a sincere reply, the truth.'”

Tactically astute, Di Rupo has been hailed for striking coalition deals that kept his party in office in a string of governments. He also successfully steered it through a series of devastating corruption scandals.

But his one black mark is his controversially poor Dutch.

His thick laboured accent is all the talk in the media, particularly after mixing his verbs in a recent speech by calling on Belgians to drink (drinken) when he meant to say it was urgent (dringen) to agree to austerity.

“He’s ready to be prime minister, apart from his Dutch,” said the biggest Flemish daily Het Laasste Nieuws.

“I’m going to work on it,” Di Rupo promised. “I will reply in Dutch in parliament, even with mistakes.”

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