Belgium tied Iraq on Tuesday for a very special world record: Number of days without a new government. (It's been 289 days since the inconclusive June 13, 2010, election.) Has living without a government made any difference to the Belgian people?
Not really. It's not quite accurate to say the country is without a government. In parliamentary systems like that of Belgium or the United Kingdom, the existing ministers remain in office when Parliament is dissolved in anticipation of an election. In the event that the elections are inconclusive, the ministers continue to perform their functions. They can't undertake controversial new initiatives, because they don't have a parliamentary majority to approve it, but they can accomplish administrative tasks. The Belgian federal government has a fairly limited portfolio by European standards, dealing mainly with defense, foreign relations, social security, and the judiciary. In these areas, it's been able to manage. For example, Belgium sent four F-16 jets and 150 military personnel to help with the Libyan no-fly zone.
Beneath the federal government, there are three regional governments—one for Dutch-speaking Flanders, one for francophone Wallonia, and one for Brussels, which is linguistically integrated. They handle day-to-day responsibilities like transportation, the environment, and local economic projects. Working alongside them are the so-called community governments, which govern the members of their own linguistic groups both in their home region and in bilingual Brussels. * The French community government, for example, is responsible for administering francophone education, no matter where in the country the school might be. These subnational governments have continued to operate as usual.
The relatively minor impact of the deadlock on everyday life is probably why Belgians seem to have taken the situation in stride, even making light of it at times. There have been some street protests, but one senator has suggested that politicians' spouses withhold sex to force a deal. A well-known actor is urging Belgians not to shave until a government is formed.
There are long-term risks, however. Belgium's national debt is nearly equal to its annual gross domestic product, which ranks around 10th in the world in debt-to-GDP ratio. In December, Standard & Poor's threatened to downgrade the country's credit rating, in large part because the political stalemate prevents the government from addressing its debt problems.
This type of situation is far from unprecedented. Remember the anxious days after the 2010 U.K. elections when it wasn't clear when defeated Prime Minister Gordon Brown would resign? It's only the duration of the stalemate in Belgium that is unique. And while nine months without a government is a long time by any standard, political conflict is probably unavoidable in a country where parties tend to draw support from just one linguistic group. In June's elections, the top vote-getting Flemish separatist party won 27 seats, the francophone social democrats won 26, and 10 other parties split the remaining 97 seats.
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Explainer thanks Jeroen Dewulf of UC Berkeley, Vivien A. Schmidt of Boston University, and Jeffrey Tyssens of Vrije Universiteit Brussel.
Correction, April 6, 2011: This article originally stated that community governments have jurisdiction over members of their own linguistic groups across the country. In fact, they only govern those people in their home region and in Brussels, which is linguistically integrated. (Return to the corrected sentence.)