“My life is a fairy tale.”
— Elio Di Rupo, quoted by BBC News
There is something which connects Belgium and its new prime minister. Unlike its bigger European counterparts such as Italy, which chose technocrats over previously-elected governments to tide over the sovereign debt crisis, Belgium turned around to embrace democracy again after a gap of about 18 months. Likewise, the new incumbent Elio Di Rupo is in many ways an unusual and surprising choice to lead the nation at a critical juncture in its history.
First of all, he speaks French in a country where 60% of the people converse in Dutch. Politically, Di Rupo is a left-wing prime minister in a country that is generally considered right-leaning. The fact that he was born in a squatters’ camp to Italian immigrant parents also puts the spotlight on the flamboyant new prime minister.
In many ways, Elio Di Rupo’s lifetime and political meteoric rise from a modest background runs parallel to Belgium, which transformed itself from a German colony during the World Wars into a thriving Western European economy in the last 50 years or so. The fact that Brussels is home to the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) only underlines the importance of the role played by this tiny speck of a nation in global affairs. The country also enjoys the distinction of being the sixth-biggest Euro-zone economy and an active trade partner with other EU countries, especially Germany.
Despite its prominence, Belgium, over the recent years, has been torn asunder under the impact of linguistic and cultural differences between Dutch and French factions that fueled a political stalemate for a timeworn18 months until recently. Still, concerns remain that the country could break up under the impact of the stark disparities. Economically, the financial crisis of 2008-09 and the European debt crisis made matters worse for the country, with climbing levels of public debt, slowing economic growth, and rising unemployment.
Di Rupo acknowledges the role played by his mother who shaped his life after the loss of his father at the tender age of one. Early on, Di Rupo realized that the only way for a person in his situation to come up in life was through the education ladder. A bright student, Di Rupo’s good grades helped him pursue a doctoral degree in science at Mons University in western Belgium. He then became a member of the teaching staff at Leeds University in the U.K., a stint that helped him hone his English-speaking skills.
Incidentally, it was those student days at Mons that turned out to be the launching pad for Di Rupo’s political career. While there, he developed an interest in politics, taking an active part in the affairs of the Socialist Party. According to The Independent, although he was initially ridiculed as the “little macaroni”, Di Rupo went on to become an MP and mayor of Mons. In 1991, he ascended to a Senatorial seat, which was followed by his first ministerial role a year later. Di Rupo’s success in managing the education policymaking as minister led to his elevation as Deputy Prime Minister in 1994. A number of high-profile assignments followed over the years and from 1999, Di Rupo has held the reins of the Socialist Party, which managed to form a coalition government under his stewardship in December 2011.
As Di Rupo embarks on the onerous task of guiding Belgium through political as well as economic issues, public opinion predictably is divided. Admirers hail him as the embodiment of the Belgian dream, rising through very challenging circumstances to steer the destinies of his fellow countrymen. Detractors say he is just enjoying his fleeting moments of fame. Whatever history’s final judgment, Di Rupo seems to have a personality as distinct and colorful as his trademark red bow ties. Born and brought up as a Catholic, Di Rupo later described himself as an “atheist, rationalist, and free mason,” according to a BBC News profile.
Like him or loathe him, one cannot ignore Di Rupo. According to the view of The Independent, Di Rupo, 60, has been called the weakest prime minister in Belgian history, and lacks the fortitude to reconcile the various conflicting interests. But the wily fighter may be made of sterner stuff, hardened by his childhood experiences.
After all, he has been through the rough and tumble of politics for 35 long years, including an escape from allegations as serious as pedophilia in the late 90s. It appears that Di Rupo’s greatest political achievement so far has been his recent success in solving the political impasse that threatened to break the country up. Though choppy markets and a ratings downgrade of the country helped a speedy resolution, Di Rupo did succeed in persuading the bickering factions to come to the negotiating table. As of now, Di Rupo has endeared himself to Belgians as the one who ended the crisis.
As the veteran politician embarks on a tough job, the hurdle now is to implement reforms that also include tough austerity measures to put the economy back on track. The greater test for the linguistically challenged leader, though, may be to make the French and the Dutch believe in the concept of a united Belgium.
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© Thomas White International, Ltd. 2019