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Belgium's popular prime minister looks for victory in October

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An American journalist interviewing him last week suggested tongue-in-cheek that to be prime minister of Belgium -- a country the size of Maryland with a population only slightly larger than that of New York City -- may be more difficult than to be president of the United States. The prime minister of Belgium laughed. ``Yes,'' he replied with only a hint of humor, ``it may be.''

Wilfried Martens, a master of survival in a political minefield as treacherous as any in Western Europe, has done it again. Last week, he held a coalition government together through yet another political crisis in a country that has had 32 governments since the end of World War II.

All signs suggest the man who has headed the longest-serving Belgian government in two decades will do so again following national elections scheduled for Oct. 13.

``What happened on May 29 was a catastrophe, even for the government,'' Mr. Martens said in an interview, referring to the riot at a soccer match in Brussels that left 38 spectators dead and more than 400 injured. ``I didn't expect that it would have immediate political consequences.''

Last Tuesday, after six ministers in his center-right coalition government resigned when the interior minister refused to take responsibility for not containing the violence at the soccer match, Martens submitted his government's resignation to King Baudouin. The King turned it down.

But the crisis left the government weakened and forced Martens to advance the date of the next parliamentary elections from early December to Oct. 13.

Ruling Belgium is far from easy. The country is divided into two distinct linguistic and administrative halves, Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia. Each must be equally represented in the coalition government. And there are no fewer than 15 political parties representing the range of political opinion, including the Christian Democrats, Liberals, and Socialists (each split into separate Dutch- and French-speaking wings).

The Martens government won praise from the US and other NATO countries last March when it decided despite strong public opposition to begin deploying 48 US cruise missiles in Belgium as part of a NATO plan to counter the Soviet Union's military buildup.

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