Verhofstadt had twice attempted to form governments when the Liberals had not won a plurality of the votes. In 1991 and again in 1995, after initial failures by both Christian Democrats and Socialists to form governments, he had stepped in but was unable to forge a coalition. Bitter rivalries within his own party had impeded his efforts as much as opposition from other parties. His failure to form a coalition in 1995 weighed particularly heavily upon him. He resigned his leadership of the Liberal Party and decided to take time away from politics. He moved temporarily with his family to Italy, where he spent over a year reading and reflecting.
From all accounts, the year Verhofstadt spent in Italy was an intellectually formative one. When he returned to Belgium in 1997 to take a seat in the Senate and once again lead his party, his political views were substantially broader and less ideological. While in Italy, he had developed an interest in the environment. He also saw that while Italy had a contentious political culture, its governing institutions functioned quite well. He began to take a greater interest in the efficiency of governmental institutions and in policies that might curtail corruption. No longer was his focus strictly on the business community and the free market.
Upon returning to his home, he declared that Belgium "is still a country afflicted by politicization, scheming, wheeling, and dealing—the country of missed opportunities." This would be a central theme in his rise to government leadership.
The 1999 parliamentary election campaign gave Verhofstadt ample opportunity to exhibit his broadened interests and ideas, as well as his ample leadership skills. During the campaign, his party hammered at the corruption of elements of the Belgian political elite, some of whom had recently been convicted of bribery. While Verhofstadt accepted political horse trading as necessary to the functioning of a multilingual nation, he repeatedly told voters that the line must be drawn at under-the-table payments from the business world to political parties and at cronyism. He referred scathingly to the "kleptocracy" that was running the country. The campaign took place in a contentious atmosphere. A racist party was demanding that immigrants be sent out of the country. Flemish nationalists verbally attacked the Walloons, their poorer neighbors to the south, as draining away public resources. For the first time in many years, the idea that the country might split into separate states, a Dutch-speaking north and a French-speaking south, was raised as a serious option by political commentators and a growing band of local politicians.
The parliamentary election results of 13 June 1999 left the Liberals with 41 seats in the Chamber, the most of any party. The Socialists won 33 seats, and the Ecolos (Francophone Greens) won 20—the last a striking development for a party little more than a decade old. The Christian Democrats (Christian People's Party) fared poorly. Normally, forming a coalition in Belgium requires several months of negotiation among the leading parties. The daunting task of coalition building again seemed at hand because the three strongest parties had many divergent views. The Liberal Democrats remained at heart a free-market party of business, with considerable support from the intellectual community as well. The Socialists remained the party of the workers and the lower middle class and in opposition to free-market policies that might throw its supporters out of work in hard economic times. The Ecolos often vilified the business community as bent on making money at the expense of the environment and the interests of the average citizen.
Verhofstadt's concerns over the environment, his desire to end corruption, and his intention to make the institutions of government function persuaded the Socialists and the Ecolos to join the Liberals in a government after only a month of bargaining. Verhofstadt is serving as prime minister with a cabinet that holds nine Liberal ministers, eight Socialist ministers, and four Ecolo ministers. The new government took power on 12 July 1999 and controls 94 of the Chamber's 150 seats.