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Associated Press, June 11, 1999

Government's fate uncertain in elections amid food scandal

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This is a Thursday June 10, 1999 picture of the cover of the weekly magazine HUMO showing a photo illustration of Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene with a roosters comb and pigs ears. The depiction is in response to the recent dioxin food poisoning crisis that erupted in Belgium. In Dutch, Dehaene translates as "rooster." Until two weeks ago, few questioned Dehaene's future - but the dioxin scandal has shaken Belgium's political landscape ahead of national elections Sunday, June 13, 1999. (AP Photo/Yves Logghe)   

By ROBERT WIELAARD

Associated Press Writer

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) - Until two weeks ago, few questioned Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene's future - but the outbreak of a dioxin food contamination scandal has shaken Belgium's political landscape ahead of national elections Sunday.

Polls have predicted gains for opposition conservative, Greens and extreme right-wing parties and some slippage of Dehaene's long dominant Christian Democrats.

Dehaene - nicknamed "The Locomotive" on election billboards - has been losing ground since the announcement May 28 that cancer-causing dioxin had contaminated a wide range of Belgian food through tainted animal feed.

Dehaene, 58, has been at pains since the scandal broke to show himself hard at work restoring confidence in Belgian food at home and abroad and has made only limited appearances on the campaign trail.

"These days, I hardly think about the elections," he said of the food crisis. Most nations, including the United States, banned Belgian beef, poultry, pork, eggs, milk and byproducts last week after it was discovered that large quantities had been contaminated by dioxin.

On Sunday, 7.2 million Belgians elect a new 150-member national parliament and four regional assemblies: one each for the country's Dutch, French and German-speaking regions and one for bilingual Brussels. Also, Belgians will elect 25 members to the European Parliament.

It appeared unlikely all Belgian shops would be back to normal by Sunday, and Dehaene said the food crisis might well affect the fortunes of his center-left coalition. "I would perfectly understand the reaction and draw my conclusions from this," said Dehaene.

Dehaene emerged from the 1995 elections with a center-left alliance of Christian Democrats and Socialists holding 82 of the 150 seats in the Chamber. The coalition partners - like all political parties, split into Dutch and French-speaking camps - have been in power for 12 years, the last eight under Dehaene.

The prime minister has claimed credit for getting Belgium ready for the euro, the single European currency that has been embraced by 11 of the 15 European Union nations.

Yet that achievement has been overshadowed by scandals that voters remember as much as the austerity they had to swallow to join the euro.

Last December, Willy Claes received a three-year suspended jail term for corruption related to defense contracts when he was economics minister in the 1980s. The investigation led him to quit as NATO secretary-general in October 1995, and also brought down other leading Belgian Socialists, both Dutch and French-speaking.

Dehaene's government has also come under harsh criticism for apparent police ineptitude and judicial shortcomings that allowed a serial child rapist and killer, Marc Dutroux, to prey on young girls for years, and even briefly escape police custody in April 1998. Dutroux was charged in 1996 with sexually abusing six young girls and killing four of them.


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