x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Belgium 'celebrates' record-beating political crisis

Country that is home to Nato HQ passes Iraq for time spent without a government as Dutch-speaking Flemings and French-speaking Walloons fail to agree on deal to break political deadlock.

BRUSSELS // Belgium has snatched Iraq's dubious record as the country boasting the world's longest political crisis of recent times, an event cheekily marked by a "chips revolution" honouring a favourite national dish.

The nation of 11 million people, home to both the European Union and NATO, hit 249 days of political deadlock on Thursday after an election last June 13 that failed to produce an outright winner.

The Belgian press marked the event with brio, the leading daily in Dutch-speaking Flanders using a football analogy with a front page showing supporters in carnival mood and the headline "At last, world champions!".

Unusually, the French-language press pursued the same editorial lines, with Le Soir crying "Record Beaten!" and warning the day-count was far from finished.

Others took a more sombre view, La Capitale speaking of the record that "shames" Belgium and La Libre Belgique warning that the bond market, the scourge of struggling eurozone nations everywhere, "is not satisfied with the void".

Already Europe's longest wait for a government - beating the Netherlands in 1977 at 208 days - Belgium now out-performs Iraq, where Kurds and Shiite and Sunni Muslims struck a political pact late last year after 249 days, which in December, 40 days later, saw a government sworn in.

But a new government for Belgium is not even on the horizon, as politicians from the Dutch-speaking north and the French-speaking south continue to squabble over a coalition government deal.

In hopes of bringing the two sides to a deal, Belgian students have called a host of tongue-in-cheek events to mark the occasion.

After boycotts on sex and shaving, the plans include free chips countrywide.

"We've had enough of political games," said one of the organisers, Kliment Kostadinov. "We must get a government fast and a reform of our institutions that is good for all Belgians."

In Antwerp DJs will be on hand for the occasion, while Liege stages a flash-mob, Louvain hands out free chips, and Ghent features 249 protesters "dressed down to the bare essentials".

As fears mount of a lasting divorce between the two sides, the figurehead sovereign King Albert II has named a succession of special envoys to bridge the gulf but all efforts have floundered.

The current go-between is the caretaker finance minister, Didier Reynders.

At stake in the political haggling is a deal to reform Belgium's federal system, giving more autonomy to each of its regions - Dutch-speaking Flanders, French-speaking Wallonia and Brussels, a bilingual region stranded inside Flanders.