From poverty to power

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No stranger to public office, Elio Di Rupo took over as Prime Minister of Belgium late last year, ending a political vacuum that lasted 18 months. Profile by David Haworth

All last year and much of the previous one Belgium established a debilitating world record of being without a government for 541 days. For most of that period of murky political and linguistic turmoil, no one had any idea if the nation would survive in its present form, still less who would emerge from the intra-party negotiations as prime minister. It’s fair to say this historic vacuum did little for Belgium’s reputation and “the divided heart of Europe” was increasingly cited overseas as analogous to the European Union’s own crisis as successive summits rolled by inconclusively.

COALITION

Few threw their hats in the air, therefore, when the 60-year-old political veteran Elio Di Rupo emerged just before Christmas as the next Belgian Prime Minister. There was some relief that what had become a national embarrassment, a sour joke even, was finally at an end; relief, too, that he had pulled together a six-party coalition which satisfies most of the electorate except Flemish separatists, who still want more drastic schisms in the way the country is ruled than the familiar ones.

For his part Di Rupo is a traditionalist, clear-eyed about the wonky political scenery in the certain knowledge that it is the best available for the time being. Whether – and for how long – he will be able to hold everything together is a large question for Belgians and, increasingly, for the watchful elsewhere.

“In some ways he’s an improbable figure”

In some ways he’s an improbable figure. Born in Mons of an immigrant Italian family, the youngest of seven children, his mother was illiterate and his miner father died in a motor accident when Elio was still a baby. He knew poverty all right and, it might be said, was bred into his Socialism.

“Inevitably attired in dark suit, black shoes, white shirt and trademark bow-tie”

Appearing younger than his years, bespectacled and with black hair a bit too long for statesman-like dignity, he is inevitably attired in dark suit, black shoes, white shirt and trademark bow-tie – nearly always a red one, so that no-one loses the point.

Di Rupo trained as a chemist, gained a doctorate from the University of MonsHainaut and lectured at Leeds University; were it not for politics, he might have become head of a laboratory pioneering something arcane. But politics took hold of him in an environment not for the fastidious: Wallonia Socialism. Yet he prospered as the movement’s boss for twelve years, presiding over what one Belgian commentator dubbed “a genuine crocodile pool”.

Between 2005 and 2007 Di Rupo was Wallonia’s Prime Minister, a period when he honed a national profile as a battler against the corruption which plagued the south of the country. He admitted to a biographer to having considered suicide when falsely accused of sex with a minor. It was a malicious charge of which he was cleared completely. During a politically dizzy moment pursuing media bellowed at him in the street: “Some people are saying you’re homosexual.” He shouted back: “Yes, I am. So what?” After that, he says, there were some moments of silence. The issue, if it ever was such, died on the spot.

The country’s economic predicament gives Di Rupo no leisure for a reflective way out of trouble. His “in tray” held the Dexia Bank portfolio; then there was the random massacre of Christmas shoppers in Liege at which he shed public tears. His first appearance on the international stage at an EU Summit was somewhat obscured by the Sarkozy versus Cameron uproar over the euro. Straight off Di Rupo must find public expenditure savings of 11.3 billion for a nation whose debt is 96 percent of the gross national product; there are no goodies to offer the electorate.

It is not yet known whether he can rise to the economic crisis. Is he just a snappily dressed boffin? Or is there real depth and stature in someone who claimed to his biographer: “My life is an angel’s tale. You couldn’t make it up.” Indeed it is a strange trajectory, moving through the sump of Belgian politics for so many years, always attended by the aggro of rust belt deprivation: wouldn’t angels have feared to tread?

LANGUAGES

Di Rupo’s sunny insistence on good fortune doesn’t conceal his imperfect use of Flemish. He speaks French and Italian plus English, but stumbles in the language used by the majority of the population – 60 percent – and is mocked for this.

The premier has promised linguistic improvement right up to intelligibility, which “Psychology Today” sneers at for being “a modest ambition”. The publication calculates he will need hundreds of hours more tuition before he gets up to speed in Flemish and questions whether his brain is “plastic” enough for the task.

Much more to the point: would he have time? Needing to navigate the perilous currents of Europe’s financial and economic crisis is surely enough of a challenge; ideally he requires calm to deal with a jaundiced nation’s problems. But he must already suspect that 2012 is Lady Luck’s sabbatical year.