BRUSSELS, March 30 — This is a European country riven by ethnic tensions. Its public debt is almost as big as its total annual output and it’s in the middle of a political crisis so deep that this week it passes Iraq as the modern-day state whose politicians have taken the longest to form a government.
Yet the buses run more or less on time, the garbage is collected twice a week, exports of pharmaceuticals, steel cord, chocolate and beer are uninterrupted -- and it can still take about a month to get a new telephone line.
Governing is never easy. In the past year or so, it has sometimes seemed impossible. Just ask North Africa’s rulers who, after a long period of stability, not to mention repression and abuses, have faced popular uprisings demanding their ousters. In the United States, the big two parties have fallen victims in different ways to the upstart populist Tea Party movement. In Europe, governments in Britain and Ireland have been kicked out in the aftermath of the financial crisis. This month, the government in Portugal collapsed.
Meantime in Belgium, whose Dutch- and French-speaking parties can’t agree on what powers should be devolved from the centre to the regions, the absence of government is hardly commented on. More than nine months after a June 2010 election, talk in bars and cafes strays only occasionally to the country’s political predicament. “We’re not really following it anymore,” says a bartender in the Flemish town of Mechelen with a shrug.
“It’s a crisis without an audience,” says Carl Devos, politics professor at the University of Ghent. “It’s a bit absurd.”
In a world of upheaval, the fact that one of its oldest democracies has kept ticking over without validated political leadership is remarkable, even if its citizens don’t see it.
Belgium managed the whole of its six-month presidency of the European Union last year with a caretaker government. That same government has laid out a 2011 budget and dispatched fighter jets to play their part in guaranteeing the no-fly zone over Libya. In the first three months of 2011 it’s reached almost half its target for this year’s bond issues.
Would some countries work better without a government? Could the world learn something from Belgium’s experience?
Belgium's King Albert II (3rd R) visits the Large Hadron Collider of the European Organization for Nuclear Research CERN (Centre Europeen de Recherche Nucleaire) in the French village of Cessy, near Geneva February 19, 2009. — Reuters pic
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