In the 1990s Belgium?s public life was shaken by a number of serious scandals. In 1991, a former deputy prime minister and socialist leader was murdered in a contract killing that took several years to come to light. The Dutroux child-sex-and-murder affair in 1996 led to national outrage, compounded by the realization that less official negligence and inefficiency could have saved the lives of several children. The tragedy fueled pressure for reform of the political, judicial, and police systems. In 1998, along with two other major Belgian politicians, former NATO secretary-general Willy Claes was convicted of bribery. In 1999, a public health scandal involving dioxin, a cancer-causing chemical, resulted in the unexpected electoral defeat of Christian-Democratic prime minister Jean-Luc Dehaene.
In June 1999, the new prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt of the Liberal Party, cobbled together a coalition of liberals, socialists, and greens, which was continued, without the green parties, after the May 2003 election. His government passed extremely liberal social policies, including the legalization of gay marriage and euthanasia and the partial decriminalization of marijuana. Against the wishes of the prime minister?s party, a parliamentary majority also extended voting rights at local elections to all foreign residents.