Youthful protesters taking to the streets have been in the spotlight these last few weeks from Egypt to Tunisia. Less high profile are the protests rocking Belgium, better known for chocolates, waffles and Eurocrats than political dissent. Up to 50,000 people in this country of 11 million marched through the streets of Brussels recently, subverting the usual dynamic of protest politics by demanding the creation rather than the downfall of a government.
On Thursday, Belgium will break the dubious world record of the longest period a country has gone without a government, taking over the title from war-torn Iraq. It’ll have been 250 days since elections in Belgium failed to produce a clear winner. Eighty sets of negotiations have taken place since June 2010 in an attempt to thrash out a compromise between MPs from Flanders, the fiscally conservative and prosperous Dutch-speaking northern half of the country and Wallonia, the socialist and economically depressed French-speaking south.
A strict linguistic apartheid operates between the two regions with everything from schools and shop and road signs rendered in Dutch in Flanders and in French in Wallonia. Political parties are not national, but Flemish or Walloon, and north and south vote separately.
However, although the two communities operate in large part as disconnected entities, the country’s welfare system is funded federally, which in practice means that Flanders pays for Wallonia’s pensions and health care. Given these deep divisions and their institutionalisation, what is surprising is not that Belgium has gone 250 days without a government, but that Belgium has ever managed to have a government in the past at all.
But a growing number of youngsters on both sides of the geographic divide say they are weary of the endless linguistic battles that cleave the country into two. They are using social networking sites combined with a dollop of humour to voice their protests.
The Belgian equivalent of Tahrir square is thus a virtual one, where on www.camping16.be, 151,799 (and counting) young people have pitched camp in a “park” opposite the Belgian Prime Minister’s office in Brussels. Their demand is clear: “give us a government or give us back our money”.
There are a host of other complimentary protest campaigns as well, ranging from a “no-shave-until-we-have-a-government” movement, led by the actor Benoît Poelvoorde, to a call for the wives of Belgian politicians to withhold sex from their spouses until a political compromise is reached.
On Thursday, university students in both Flanders and Wallonia are planning to hold frite or French fry parties to mark their country’s taking over of the no-government world record.
Some Belgians claim there are benefits to this state of suspended government: taxes cannot be raised; the national budget deficit was less than predicted last year, partly because there was no national government to spend new money.
But the country’s lack of government has taken on more serious overtones in recent months, with financial markets already jittery over the sovereign-debt crisis afflicting the euro zone’s peripheral economies, turning their critical attention to Belgium.
Investors are proving concerned about the caretaker government’s ability to bring down its bloated debt. The country’s public debt figure was 97.2% of economic output at the end of 2010. Credit rating agency Standard and Poor’s warned in December that Belgium’s credit worthiness might be downgraded if the political crisis is not solved by mid-May.
And despite all the frite and no-sex revolutions being planned, signs of a resolution are scant. The Belgian joke of their country being the “most successful failed state in the world,” might not end up being a laughing matter after all.