Belgian Unity Elusive But Protests More Creative

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BRUSSELS (AP) - For Belgians frustrated by politicians' eight-month failure to form a government, the creativity of their protests knows no bounds: A sex strike? A Belgian fries revolution?

But so far, these protests seem as futile as they are funny.

If anything, they show a touch of the famous Belgian surrealism that refuses to take the crisis of a nation with a linguistically split personality all that seriously.

As politicians have slumped from one stalemate to the next since last June's elections, the population has gone from apathy to a sense that something is fundamentally amiss in the small kingdom. But a yawning gap remains between that realization and a real public movement to bring about change.

Take the recent initiative of Socialist senator Marleen Temmerman.

"The call is 'let's go for a sex strike until we have a government,'" she said Thursday. The call attracted media attention. But then it turned out that Temmerman really didn't intend for all Belgians to abstain until a new government is formed - which could, in this country, be quite a long time.

"It's not meant to be serious. It's a good joke," she said.

Her call fell on deaf ears - much like that of Belgian actor Benoit Poelvoorde, who last month urged men to grow their beards until a government was in place. The streets did not suddenly fill up with bearded Belgians.

"I want us to get out of this, so we have a government," said Belgian commuter Eliane Regoit as she strolled between parliament and King Albert II's royal palace. "But not to have sex or not shaving, like Benoit Poelvoorde, I think that will not change the politicians."

So while King Albert keeps appointing and then accepting the resignations of a long list of go-betweens who seek to reconcile the country's 6 million Dutch-speaking Flemings and the 4.5 million Francophones, daily life goes on with nary a change.

Except, that is, for next Thursday's "Fries Revolution," the latest initiative of local students to throw some fat into the political fire. Fries, like the king and the underperforming national football team, are one of the few symbols that still unites Belgians throughout this divided realm.

The students plan protest actions on both sides of the linguistic border that slices the nation into a northern Dutch-speaking half and a southern Francophone one. The protests are scheduled to include a get-naked gathering in Ghent, various marches, and a DJ party in Antwerp.

There are posters announcing a big party in Ghent, screaming "Support our Heroes!" as the negotiators go for a new world record in government non-formation, currently held by Iraq.

As fundamental as language is in Belgium, the ins and out of the complex legislation intended to resolve the divisions are too convoluted to resonate with the public, said Professor Dave Sinardet, of the University of Brussels.

"It is not something which keeps people awake at night, if you compare it, for example, to protests over pension reform in France, which hit people very close to home," Sinardet said.

And the very whimsicality of the protest calls, said Sinardet, "reflects Belgian humor. It is self-deprecating."

But Flemish author Kristien Hemmerechts gets frustrated by their futility.

"One grows a beard, another has no sex, a third could decide to no longer bathe, a fourth could refuse to pay taxes. The latter would be more interesting. We would move toward civil disobedience," she wrote in an op-ed piece for VRT network.

So she has a message: "Snap out of it" and take to the streets in a repeat of the only serious political protest so far. Last month, 30,000 demonstrators marched through Brussels, the Belgian capital, demanding that the rival political groupings finally form a coalition.

Not that politicians took much note. A Francophone liberal is currently seeking to bring the quarreling parties closer together, but most observers agree that outgoing finance minister Didier Reynders stands about as much chance as his predecessors - very little.

"There are few reasons to think it could go better now," said Sinardet.

At the same time, a caretaker government is taking on ever more duties. In an extraordinary move, King Albert has already instructed caretaker Prime Minister Yves Leterme to take "all measures to safeguard the welfare of the citizens on an economic, social and financial level." In other words, the "temporary" government has been told to start doing some long-term planning.

As for the record, the chances of besting the Iraqis increase by the day.

After Iraq's March 7 elections, it took until Dec. 21 to set up the government: nine months of haggling to bring together the main ethnic and religious groups in a fragile balance that could make it difficult to rebuild a nation devastated by war.

Fortunately, Belgium has no such fractious heritage and is far wealthier, leading to citizens who are more laid-back in their protests.

Yet, the clock is counting through the 240s, and the Iraqi record of 289 days draws nearer by the day.
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