Belgium's political crisis energises Flemish separatists
Protesters hit the streets as Belgium matched Iraq's record as the country longest without a government Tuesday, and polls showed the crisis boosting separatists in the Dutch-speaking north.
As Belgium snatched the dubious record after 289 days rudderless, students took to the streets to press for a coalition deal between leaders of the linguistically-partitioned country -- split between Dutch-speaking Flanders and the French-speaking south.
Feuding politicians on both sides of the divide have been deadlocked since June 13 elections over Flemish demands for greater autonomy, leaving day-to-day affairs in the hands of a caretaker government.
In the home of surrealism, a tongue-in-cheek "chips revolution" drew tens of thousands onto the streets last month while celebrities suggested sex and shaving boycotts to prod politicians towards reconciliation.
On Tuesday, protests planned in seven Belgian university towns celebrate one of the nation's sole remaining symbols of national unity -- the Belgian version of French fries -- with youngsters rebaptising town squares "Chips Square" to honour a national dish.
Meanwhile, opinion polls show the interminable dispute playing into the hands of those backing Flemish independence.
The separatist N-VA, which led the June polls with 28 percent of the vote, would garner 33 percent if an election were held today, a survey showed.
And the staunch refusal of N-VA leader Bart De Wever to back down to demands from French-speaking rivals during the near 10-month talks has bolstered his popularity in Flanders, where he now stands as its most popular politician with 57 percent support.
The Flemish far-right Vlaams Belang party -- whose catchphrase is "Die, Belgium!" -- won 13.3 percent at the 2010 polls and another nationalist group, the LDD, secured 3.2 percent.
Pollsters therefore estimate the separatists could rustle up around half of the Flemish vote.
As predictions mount of a lasting divorce across the language divide, figurehead sovereign King Albert II has named a succession of special envoys to bridge the gulf but all efforts have floundered.
At stake is a deal to reform Belgium's federal system, giving more autonomy to each of its regions -- Flanders in the north, French-speaking Wallonia in the south, and the capital Brussels, a bilingual enclave in Flanders.
Last month, Harvard academic Robert Mnookin said Belgium might need to bring in an international negotiator, such as Finland's Martti Ahtissari, a Nobel peace prize winner previously sent troubleshooting into Kosovo, Namibia and Ireland.
"The political system is such that two peoples cohabit separately there," Mnookin said. "Can the country break up? Yes that might be the case in the next decade."
In the meantime, the caretaker government headed by Prime Minister Yves Leterme is doing more than keeping the trains running on time -- adopting a budget and sending fighter planes to join the military campaign in Libya.
But constitutional expert Christian Behrendt said that the political situation was nonetheless "unhealthy," leaving differences between the two language communities unresolved and paralysing fundamental reforms on issues such as nuclear energy and a reform of the retirement and pension system.
© 2011 AFP