BRUSSELS – What would be a humiliation for many turned into a party for Belgium Thursday as the country's citizens marked 249 days without a government, a figure that they are treating as a world record in political waffling.
On every other day, the crisis pits the leaders of 6 million Dutch-speakers against those of 4.5 million French speakers, but people from across the country put aside their differences to celebrate the occasion.
In the French-speaking town of Louvain-la-Neuve, more than 1,000 people bearing the colors of the Belgian flag formed the words "Een-Un" — "One is One" in Dutch and French — calling for more unity instead of the infighting, sniping and backbiting that has made it impossible to form a national government.
In Dutch-speaking Ghent, organizers failed to persuade 249 people to strip naked, but a few dozen got down to their underwear as part of a party that's expected to draw thousands later Thursday. In Leuven, a long line of students snaked through the central square for a free portion of fries, Belgium's beloved national dish.
"Finally world champion" the usually serious De Standaard headlined its Thursday edition, tongue firmly in cheek.
Caretaker Prime Minister Yves Leterme cautioned not to make too much of the day. "Don't overestimate the impact on politicians and decision-makers," he told VRT network.
It is arguable whether 249 really is the world record. Iraq took 249 days to get the outlines of a government agreement last year, but the approval of that government took a further 40 days. Still, the way things are going, Belgium will have little problem claiming the record whichever standard is used.
After general elections on June 13 last year, Belgium's major parties began talks to force through the biggest constitutional reform in decades to keep both linguistic groups happy. But since their interests are often diametrically opposed, they ran into one deadlock after another.
King Albert had to appoint and accept the resignation of one go-between after another as the major parties refused to move far from their pre-election position. It is a process which continues to this day. The chances of success for the current negotiator, caretaker Finance Minister Didier Reynders, are seen as slim and the specter of new elections to break the deadlock are looming.
"There is a moral duty to be optimistic. And that is very important also in politics," said Flanders' Minister President Kris Peeters in an interview.
Beyond optimism, Belgians have also made it a moral duty to make fun of themselves.
"We never take ourselves seriously. We are the country of the Smurfs, of Tintin, of Rene Magritte and surrealism. So it is a country that, compared with England or France, we dare to make fun of ourselves," said Brussels politician Luckas Vander Taelen.
Along with many, the legislator in the Flemish Parliament takes a rather soothing view of the endlessly winding search for a government.
"In any country in the world where two peoples live on the same territory, there are always problems. And mostly these problems are solved with a war. And in Belgium we have a history of 180 years without one casualty," he said. "It might be boring, but it is better than a civil war."
At the heart of the political deadlock is an attempt to broker a new constitution with increased regional autonomy to reflect that the two language communities have increasingly grown apart. Richer Flanders wants as much autonomy as possible, while the poorer Francophone region wants to hold on to a much larger sense of national unity which also guarantees more financial solidarity.
Nevertheless, Belgium remains one of the wealthiest nations in the world, giving people the luxury to take things with a chuckle.
"At the end of the day we know we are a very, very happy people and that this is a very happy country. We might have some political problems, but then again, we go home, we have nice homes, fantastic social security, medical care, excellent schools," said Vander Taelen.
But financial analysts have been looking with an increasingly worried eye toward Belgium. "Concerns about Belgium's large public debt-to-GDP ratio, the third largest in the region, will probably not abate," Capital Economics wrote in an assessment this week.
King Albert has already tasked the caretaker government of acting Prime Minister Yves Leterme to take special measures to safeguard the economic stability of the country for some time to come.
On Thursday, though, all thoughts of problems to come were put aside. There was a party going on.
"After that, there is another day. After you have the world record, there is the world record-plus-one, and then you have to start negotiating," Vander Taelen said.
"It takes time. A world record is not a shame," he said.