BRUSSELS -- Belgium has become the second country in the world to select an openly gay leader.
Elio Di Rupo will lead the new government, ending 540 days of post-election brinksmanship between the parties of the Dutch-speaking north and French-speaking south.
He will lead a coalition of six parties.
Belgium went through eight attempts to mediate the political stalemate since the elections turned a right-wing separatist party, which wants Belgium to gradually “evaporate,” into the dominant force in the northern region, Flanders.
Flanders is home to Europe’s second-largest port and companies such as Anheuser-Busch InBev NV (ABI), the world’s largest brewer. It is considerably wealthier than the south, which suffers from post-industrial malaise.
Di Rupo is the son of Italian immigrants and has risen from poverty. He is known for wearing big red bow ties.
At the age of 1, he lost his father in a car crash. Struggling to raise seven children, his illiterate mother gave some of them up to a nearby orphanage.
In 1996 he was falsely accused of having sex with under age boys, something which drive him to consider suicide if he had not been totally vindicated.
He told his biographer about being pursued down the street at the time by journalists yelling “they say you’re a homosexual!”
“I turned around and shot back: ‘Yes. So what?’ I will never forget that moment … For several seconds there was silence … People were so surprised by my reply they stopped jostling each other. It was a sincere, truthful reply.”
Three years later he was leading the Socialist Party and soon after became the leader of the southern Wallonia region.
Former Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt told the BBC:
“Being the chief minister of a regional government is just a pastime compared with the hellish job of being prime minister of two different communities brought together.”
“You have to have very strong personal skills to bridge all rivalries. Di Rupo surely has the skills to be in command, otherwise he would not have succeeded in the most difficult negotiation ever.
“But much will depend on his empathy for Flemish public opinion, which is extremely volatile.”
Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir has been the openly lesbian leader of Iceland since 2009. In Italy the chief left-wing challenger for the Italian leadership is the self-described “gay, Catholic, communist” Nikki Vendola.