Belgium reaches Iraq's record government stalemate

AP News
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Posted: Mar 29, 2011 11:34 AM
Belgium reaches Iraq's record government stalemate

Belgium tied the world record with Iraq for time without a government on Tuesday, but months of political waffling that was once a joke is quickly wearing thin.

Tuesday marks the 289th day the country's bickering Dutch-speaking and Francophone politicians have failed to form a government after a June 13 election _ and there's no agreement on the horizon.

Early irritation turned into almost giddy celebration as the country broke the European record in January. Then parties were thrown last month as Belgium matched the time it took for an initial agreement to form an Iraqi government two years ago. Iraq then took another month to actually present its government.

On Tuesday, as the real moment came and went, Belgium was subdued.

Front pages focused on anything but the record, highlighting instead the resurgent national football team, the breakup of a celebrity cooking couple and the downfall of a local politician.

"They are again the pride of the nation," headlined the front of the DH newspaper, with a picture of the national football team, which beat Austria over the weekend for its best result in years. The Red Devils football team is often seen as one of the last unifying forces in the kingdom of 6 million Dutch-speakers and 4.5 million Francophones.

After celebrations attended by thousands across Belgium last month, much of the party mood _ and some of the anger, too _ has dissipated.

"There is a lot of apathy on both sides of the linguistic front," said Professor Dave Sinardet of the University of Brussels.

In the university town Ghent, only about 100 people showed up for meeting on a sunny square instead of the thousands who took part last month.

After decades of increasingly difficult compromises, running the country has become increasingly complicated. And richer Flanders has increasingly demanded more autonomy from Wallonia.

Walloon politicians, though, want to hang on to as many national institutions as possible for their financial survival. Reconciling those views has proven impossible so far.

The two biggest parties, the N-VA nationalists of Bart De Wever in Flanders and the PS Walloon Socialists of Elio Di Rupo in Wallonia, seem as far apart as ever.

"Last time I checked, there was no progress," said Sinardet.

At this point, only one politician seems to be acquitting himself well _ acting Prime Minister Yves Leterme, who has made his caretaker government almost as effective as a real coalition.

"It is a bit surrealist," said Sinardet. "They say negotiations are going on, but there is a conviction it will turn to nothing. And we have a caretaker government which is increasingly looking a real government."

Meanwhile, Leterme has been able to integrate the country into the international military operation in Libya with little opposition and the financial pressure on the country, which increased during the euro crisis early this year, has abated. And he has started planning the budgets for the coming years _ something that usually falls outside the remit of a caretaker government.

Jokes in bars and bakeries now center on how much better life is under a caretaker government. But those jokes, too, might well wear thin since it will likely be quite some time before a real government is formed.