Belgium political crisis sets new world record

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289 days after general elections held in June last year, Belgium is still without a government and yesterday (29 March) replaced Iraq as the country to have experienced the longest period with no official government. The milestone was noted less in the country than abroad.

Belgium won amid an atmosphere of indifference the record of the longest political crisis, held so far by post-war Iraq.

But unlike Iraq, where in 2010 citizens threw shoes against cardboard figures of politicians to mark their disenchantment, no spectacular event took place in Belgium. 

And the Belgian press appears to have devoted less attention to the country's record-breaking achievement than the international media.

Most articles in the Belgian media mention 'chips revolutions' staged by students in several cities to mark the record, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the 'jasmine revolutions' unfolding across the Arab world.

In Brussels, Antwerp, Namur and Ghent, the city squares were renamed 'Chips Square' to mark the occasion. Some 5,000 people in streets across the country were treated to free chips, according to reports.

"Separatism: not in my name" was the slogan chanted by the students.

A Belgian national delight on both sides of the linguistic barrier, chips are seen as a symbol of hope for the future togetherness of the country.

Still, the events were low-scale compared to the nationwide 'Shame' protest of 23 January, which saw 15,000 people march through the streets of Brussels on the initiative of five students, largely thanks to social media.

In fact, Belgium's caretaker government led by Yves Leterme, a Flemish Christian Democrat, appears to enjoy broad approval for its work. The government managed to adopt a budget for 2011 and in spite of its limited mandate, sent Belgian fighter jets to enforce the no-fly zone in Libya.

Worst-case scenarios, which predicted an economic meltdown due to a drop in foreign investors' confidence in Belgium, did not materialise. The country weathered the economic crisis better than most of its European neighbours and expects growth of 2% in 2011.

Belgium's political crisis may indeed be protracted, but it is by no means unconstitutional or unusual. In 1978-79 putting in place a new government took 106 days, in 1987 it took 148 days and in 2007 seven months were required.

Change on the negotiating side could take place if Yves Leterme's CD&V party were to keep more of a distance from N-VA, the Flemish separatist party led by Bart De Wever, who is also the Flemish politician with the highest ratings.

De Wever, who has enjoyed the full support of CD&V so far, was last week criticised by Leterme for his inflexibility.

According to polls, however, the Flemish Christian Democrats would be taking a huge gamble in the event of early elections should they decide to exclude N-VA from the negotiations. According to the latest poll, support for N-VA in Flanders is on the rise.

The Belgian press claims that Belgium has not in fact beaten the world record for the most protracted government crisis, which reportedly is held by Cambodia.

According to L'Echo, Cambodia went 353 days without a government in the years 2003-2004.

Another weird feature is that the government which was finally put in place in Cambodia included 207 ministers.

The New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), a nationalist party, secured a sweeping victory in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium in national elections held on 13 June 2010, paving the way for more powers to be delegated to the regions in the country that hosts the EU institutions.

Flemish nationalist gains were matched by a large victory for the socialists in French-speaking Wallonia, with both parties expected to spearhead government coalition talks.

The early elections were triggered after Flemish liberal party Open-VLD decided to leave the government over a dispute between French- and Dutch-speaking parties regarding electoral boundaries surrounding the capital, Brussels.

Belgian King Albert II told Prime Minister Yves Leterme to stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new government was formed.

In spite of this major political crisis, Belgium rather successfully completed its term as rotating EU presidency for the second half of 2010.

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