Belgium takes a world record – in political dysfunction

Belgium bested Iraq today for having the world's longest run without a functioning government. While the country faces potential partition, today Belgians threw a party.

By , Staff writer

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    Students show a red placard during a pro-unity demonstration in Louvain-La-Neuve, Belgium, Thursday, Feb. 17. The country's citizens are marking 249 days without a government, a figure that they are treating as a world record.
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Belgium today marks a dubious world record: 249 days of a nonfunctioning government. It has the honor of eclipsing the previous record-holder, Iraq.

The standoff between French and Dutch-speaking political leaders dates to last June and has become so absurd and tragic-comic that all sides are briefly blowing off the tragedy part and protesting with comedy in a national party.

Activists in Belgian cities laid out free chips, a robust French fry, and the national dish, in what has been called a “Chip Revolution.” The hope is that it can play off the Jasmine and Orange revolutions in Tunisia and Ukraine respectively and force some comity and common sense on the politicians.

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The group “Not in Our Name” wants a compromise, and leaders of the group today described their “Chip Revolution” as “self-deprecating…. In Tunisia, Jasmine has been used to throw the government out. Here, the chips are for asking the government to come back!”

"Shame," a student-led protest organized on the Internet two weeks ago, brought 30,000 to the streets of Brussels. There’s also been a “Ban the Beard” movement on Facebook, where participants sign up and refuse to shave until the government forms. Belgian students today stripped in public in protest but did not reach the 249 naked citizens hoped for. Last week, a female Belgian senator called on women to refuse connubial relations until the two sides get together.

Belgium suffers from tensions between 6 million Dutch speakers in Flanders, in the north, and 4.5 million French speakers in Wallonia, in the south. It is really becoming two countries held together by the municipality of Brussels, which neither side wants to forfeit.

Flanders was once poor but is now affluent. It wants to stop paying social security benefits to Wallonia, which was once an industrial powerhouse but is now less competitive.

Flanders also pushes a hard line that no French be spoken or French signs be erected in its region. The French also have language laws, but take a less vigilant position on their use.

Today's world record in political dysfunction dates to elections on June 13, when the Flemish region voted overwhelmingly for a charismatic Flemish nationalist, Bart de Wever, who came to prominence after winning a TV contest called “The Smartest Man in Flanders.” Mr. de Wever is a pragmatist, not an ideologue, who managed to make a Belgian divorce and a more robust identity politics an acceptable notion among mainstream Flemish. There’s much talk in Flanders of the velvet divorce of Czechoslovakia after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The irony of Brussels as an European Union capital and champion of unity, multiculturalism, and an undivided Europe is not lost on many of its international residents.

Yet today’s national party is seen as a very relaxed. Even the far-right Vlaams Belang party, which would have Flemish immediately separate, was able to come up with a joke today, temporarily renaming “Law Avenue” in Brussels, where the prime minister resides, as “No Hurry Avenue” – in hopes that the standoff continues.

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