Belgium sets world record for longest period without a government


A woman holds French fries and mayonnaise on the "Chips Revolution' Day" in Leuven on Feb. 17,2011.


Georges Gobet

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Georgia's Revolution was rose, Tunisia's jasmine, could Belgium be next with its "Fries Revolution"?

Inspired by recent popular uprisings, Belgian students have turned to the nation's favorite gastronomic delicacy as the symbol of a movement in light-hearted revolt against the kingdom's squabbling politicians.

"Belgium has become a global embarrassment, the revolution will go on," said Jean-Gabriel Vermeire, a student leader in the university town of Louvain-la-Neuve.

On Tuesday, hundreds of students gathered in squares around the country for their Revolution des Frites in protest of the political stalemate that has left the country without a fully functioning government since June 13, 2010.

Today this little nation on the North Sea gained a world record for the longest period without a fully functioning government. It overtakes Iraq, which last year managed to cobble together a government after 289 days of post-election wrangling.

Of course, Iraq is recovering from decades of bloody dictatorship, a foreign invasion and years of violent unrest. Belgium is a stable, peaceful democracy in the heart of Western Europe, so tranquil that the European Union, NATO and a host of other international organizations chose to establish their headquarters in its capital, Brussels.

Belgium is, however, a deeply divided place.

In the elections last year, voters in the more prosperous, Dutch-speaking north turned out in mass for a separatist party that demands independence for their Flanders region.

In, poorer, French-speaking Wallonia to the south, the Socialist Party re-established its traditional dominance on a ticket of Belgian unity and solidarity — shorthand for continued transfers of taxes from the richer to the poorer region.

Since both parties were far from achieving an overall majority, they've been locked in negotiations on how to form a coalition government ever since, joined by a kaleidoscope of other parties of the liberal, Christian democratic, and Green tendencies.

The deadlock has sparked a number of protests from exasperated citizens.

Benoit Poelvoorde, the country's best-known comic actor (at least among French-speakers), launched an appeal for Belgian men to refuse to shave until the country gets a government; more than 160,000 people have pitched virtual tents in an online campsite outside the prime minister's official residence; almost 40,000 Belgians marched through Brussels in January to denounce the "shame" of their politicians; in February students stripped down to their underwear to demand a government; Marleen Temmerman, a senator from the Flemish socialist party, suggested a sex ban until Belgium gets a government.

Despite such inventive initiatives, there have been no reports of falling sales for condoms or shaving foam, suggesting that most Belgians seem bored rather than outraged by their politicians' failure to come together.

Although the students had fun eating free fries (as any Belgian will tell you, fries are not French) and releasing balloons in the red-yellow-and-black national colors at Tuesday's protests, organizers admitted crowd numbers fell well short of expectations.

There's even a school of thought that believes not having a fully empowered government is no bad thing.

Limited by the constitution to handling only day-to-day affairs rather than embarking on radical new policy initiatives, the caretaker administration of center-right Prime Minister Yves Leterme has been forced to focus on the practical difficulties of helping the economy recover from the global recession. That's enabled it to steer clear of the intricate linguistic disputes that have sunk countless previous governments.

Party negotiators are fiercely debating the most contentious points: how much power to devolve from the federal government to the linguistically based regions, and whether to roll back the rights of francophone minorities living in Dutch-speaking territory.

But they are largely ignored by the government, which instead deals with relatively uncontroversial issues like deciding to join the air campaign in Libya or budget cuts to bring down the national debt.

Belgium seems sure to set a record that will be hard to beat. Flemish Christian Democratic Party leader Wouter Beke is the latest in a line of politicians appointed by King Albert II over the course of the last eight months to mediate an end to the deadlock, but he's had no more success than his seven predecessors in finding a breakthrough.

Increasingly there's talk of calling new elections, but with opinion polls showing continued support for the separatists there's little sign that a return to the polls will provide a solution. Flemish nationalist leader Bart De Wever denies he's deliberately prolonging the political agony to promote his separatist agenda but the longer the crisis continues, the more it looks as if Belgium is becoming impossible to govern as a single state.