Brussels — 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.
Opinion polls show Martens to be the nation's most popular politician, and he is confident that his party -- the Dutch-speaking Christian Democrats -- will do well in the October elections. But last week's crisis may hurt the other parties represented in his coalition government, especially the French-speaking Liberal Reform and Social Christian parties, and the Socialists could benefit handsomely from the squabbling within the government.
``That's why I deplore what happened [last week],'' Martens said, adding that he would not be interested in leading a government that included the Socialists. It is widely believed here that the government split last week involving the Liberal Reform and Social Christian parties was motivated by pre-election manuevering for Belgium's French-speaking vote.
Last month, the Socialist Party said it would seek to dismantle the 16 US cruise missiles already stationed in Belgium and prevent the remaining 32 from being deployed if it were voted back into the government this year. The Socialists were forced out of the government in 1981.
Meanwhile, organizers of what is expected to be Belgium's largest antimissile demonstration this year are considering advancing the date of the protest from Oct. 20 to sometime before the elections. Pierre Galand, president of the National Action Committee for Peace and Development, said that Oct. 20 had ``symbolic importance'' -- the United Nations will be holding a debate on disarmament that week -- but the protest may be moved up.
Whatever happens, Martens expects his centrist Christian Democratic Party to do well in October -- as do analysts here. After declining last fall, his popularity has risen to record heights in response to his handling of difficult economic and diplomatic problems in recent months.
``After the decision on the missiles [last March],'' he said, ``it's clear that we have restored public confidence in our party. All the polls show it.''
The big question is whether the Socialists will be able to capitalize on last week's intragovernment squabbling over responsibility for the soccer riot and win sufficient votes in October to gain entry into a new government coalition. If that happens, it could mean an end to Martens' reign. But analysts are expecting him to be called on to lead his sixth government.