Rudderless Belgium's 'chips revolution' on the march
Protesters across Belgium staged a "chips revolution" Thursday to demand a government as the country took over Iraq's dubious record for the world's longest political crisis of recent times.
In Brussels, Ghent and Leuven, some 5,000 youths took to the streets, according to organisers, lining up for warm packs of free Belgian fries to honour a national dish under banners reading "Separatism: Not In Our Name -- Youth."
The rudderless nation of 11 million people, home to the European Union and NATO, hit 249 days of political deadlock Thursday as politicians from the Dutch-speaking north and French-speaking south squabble over a coalition government deal.
In Ghent, youngsters male and female stripped to the bare essentials to demand a government, with 20-year-old history student Frea Van Craeynest saying "I'm taking my clothes off to send a signal to the politicians to do something."
"We gave them our votes, our trust. They must act!"
In six degrees Celsius temperatures, her classmate Stien Van Vytvenet, 19, added: "Flemish and Walloon student have the same bodies. We've had enough."
Already Europe's longest wait for a government -- beating the Netherlands in 1977 at 208 days -- Belgium has now out-performed 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.
The Belgian press marked the event with brio, the leading daily in Dutch-speaking Flanders, De Standaard, using a football analogy under 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.
A new government for Belgium is not even on the horizon more than eight months after a June 13 election failed to produce an outright winner.
As fears mount of a lasting divorce between the two sides, figurehead sovereign King Albert II has named a succession of special envoys to bridge the gulf but all efforts have floundered.
"We saw what happened in Tunisia and Egypt," 24-year-old architecture student Kliment Kostadinov told AFP. "We are also trying to stage a positive revolution."
He and other organisers of Thursday's "unity" protests are hoping the "chips revolution" by youngsters from across Belgium's growing language and political divide will help stave off a Belgium's break-up.
"We all face the same problems, whether we're Flemish or French-speaking," said Gunter Kathagen, 23, standing by a banner reading "Belgium=1" in Leuven.
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.
The far-right Vlaams Belang, which wants independence for Flanders and whose slogan is "Belgium, Die!", has threatened to disrupt the Ghent party, where police said they were bringing reinforcements with barriers set up for 7,000 expected to be over-run.
Albert II on Wednesday asked his current go-between, caretaker finance minister Didier Reynders, to report back on progress by March 1 in getting the politicians around the negotiating table.
Harvard academic Robert Mnookin said Belgium might need to bring in an international negotiator, such as Finland's Martti Ahtissari, the troubleshooter and Nobel peace prize winner previously sent into Kosovo, Namibia and Ireland.
"The political system is such that two peoples cohabit separately there," Mnookin told L'Echo daily. "Can the country break up? Yes that might be the case in the next decade."
© 2011 AFP