BRUSSELS, Belgium – It already holds the record for the longest government crisis — 463 days without a fully-functioning administration and counting. Now a roller-coaster week of political drama has dispelled any doubts that Belgium's government is among the world's weirdest.
In the early hours last Wednesday morning, the linguistically divided country appeared to be lurching toward a breakup, after last-ditch talks between its feuding French- and Dutch-speaking political factions collapsed.
“It's gridlock,” bemoaned chief negotiator Elio di Rupo. “The future of the country is at stake.”
Fears the country could split prompted King Albert II to rush home from his vacation in the south of France for emergency talks to hold his kingdom together.
Compounding the crisis, caretaker Prime Minister Yves Leterme, who has just about kept the country running since losing elections in June 2010, announced he was resigning to take up a high-salary job at an international organization in Paris.
It seemed the end of Belgium was nigh. “How can we ask the Belgians to believe in their country when their Premier is quitting?” asked Beatrice Delvaux, editor-in-chief of the daily Le Soir newspaper.
At the king's request, Di Rupo, the flamboyant, bow-tie wearing leader of the French-speaking Socialist Party, agreed to one last go at getting a deal with seven other parties.
After dozens of such “make-or-break” nights, Belgians held little hope. Then suddenly, as midnight struck on Wednesday night, di Rupo's team announced a breakthrough.
A deal had been reached on an issue that has bedeviled Belgian politics for 40 years — special voting rights granted to French-speakers living in officially Dutch-speaking territory on the outskirts of Brussels.
That might sound arcane to outsiders. But it was the key sticking point to any agreement between politicians on both sides of Belgium’s linguistic divide.
The compromise unleashed a flood of relief. News headlines were dominated by the word “historic,” but in a twist that would have pleased Belgium's surrealist painter Rene Magritte, the breakthrough was only possible after the losing parties in last year's election ganged up to throw the victor out of the negotiations.
Belgium’s 15-month crisis began with elections on June 13, 2010 that gave victory to the New Flemish Alliance — a separatist party that wants independence for Flanders, the country’s Dutch-speaking northern half.
Although the biggest party, the secessionists captured just 27 of the 150 seats in parliament, so the winning party’s pugnacious leader, Bart De Wever, agreed to work with other parties to form a coalition government. Flemish independence, he declared, was a long-term goal and Belgium could carry on for now.
In return however, De Wever demanded concessions from the French-speakers.
He insisted that less tax money should be transferred from Flanders to bilingual Brussels and the poorer French-speaking region of Wallonia. He also insisted on devolving more power from the federal government to the regions. Most contentiously, he demanded a rollback of minority rights granted over the years to around 90,000 French-speakers who live in Flemish suburbs surrounding Brussels.
Polls showed widespread support for his tough line among Flemings who make up around 60 percent of Belgium’s 10.8 million population. French-speakers predictably resisted. In the ensuing stalemate, Belgium overtook Iraq and Cambodia to capture the world record for the longest political crisis.
Leterme, who should have stepped down after his Christian Democratic and Flemish party suffered losses in the 2010 election, soldiered on as a caretaker prime minister. He drew praise for deflecting fears that rudderless and heavily indebted Belgium could become another victim of the euro zone economic crisis.
Then on Wednesday, he announced he was off to Paris to become deputy director of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Such retreats are not uncommon among Belgian politicians frustrated with poisonous linguistic politics at home.
Leterme’s predecessor, Herman Van Rompuy jumped ship in December 2009 to become President of the European Council. In 1994, Jean-Luc Dehaene was preparing to abandon the prime minister’s office in the midst of a national trauma over the genocide in its former colony Rwanda, until Britain slapped a last- minute veto on his appointment as European Commission president.
Fortunately for Belgium, Leterme’s announced departure seems to have concentrated the minds of the country’s politicians.
The deal they struck last week involves shrinking the country’s last bilingual voting district, which had given French-speaking politicians a toe-hold in Flemish territory. In return Francophones get to keep language rights in a more limited zone adjoining Brussels.
The Flemish separatists denounced the deal. The party’s parliamentary leader Jan Jambon accused other Flemish parties of “dropping their pants,” by making concessions to the Francophones.
However, with support from most mainstream politicians the deal could clear the way for the formation of a new government.
Belgians won’t be holding their breath though.
Agreement still has to be found on rebalancing political power among the regions and sharing out the budget. One politician pointed out that Leterme is unlikely to start his new job until the end of the year, so they still have plenty of time to negotiate.