Thousands marched in Belgium Sunday to demand the formation of a government, more than seven months after an inconclusive legislative vote left a caretaker administration in power while party leaders argued over giving more power to the regions.
REUTERS - Tens of thousands of Belgians took to the streets on Sunday to shame political leaders who have failed to form a government more than seven months after an election and left the country at the mercy of financial markets.
Organisers of the "Shame: no government, great country" protest said up to 50,000 people had joined the march through the capital Brussels. Police put the figure at 34,000.
Protesters were encouraged to wear white in an echo of the "White March" of 1996 when 300,000 Belgians demonstrated for better child protection after the arrest of paedophile serial killer Marc Dutroux. White was seen as the colour of hope.
"Many called it meaningless, naive or shallow. But let me ask you, what is meaningless in demanding that we want a government?" student and co-organiser Thomas Royberghs told the crowd, who spontaneously chanted back "Yes we can".
One large banner twinned the demand for a new government with Belgians' favourite drink and food. "We want beer, fries and a government," it said.
Since the inconclusive June 2010 parliamentary vote, a caretaker administration has run the country while Dutch- and French-speaking party leaders have argued over the degree to which powers and tax-raising rights should be transferred to regions of the linguistically divided country.
French-speakers particularly view further devolution as a step towards the break-up of Belgium, something they oppose.
"We are here because we want to show the political leaders that things must change.. It's the politicians who are trying to split the country. I'm against the separation of Belgium," said 36-year-old Laurent de Leeuw, marching with his five-year-old son.
In the past two months, financial markets have also woken up to the impasse, increasing the country's borrowing costs.
Economists say the lack of a fully-fledged government means Belgium cannot take reforms required to rein in its heavy debt and left investors wondering whether the country could eventually need a bailout.
Belgium's public sector debt has approached the size of its annual economic output and was the third highest in the euro zone in 2009, behind only Italy and bailed out Greece. Only rescue fund recipient Ireland appears to have caught up last year.
The protest is the latest in a series of sometimes eccentric civil actions designed to show public discontent at the post-election deadlock -- now at a record 223 days.
One Facebook group has called for a demonstration on Feb. 17, when it says Belgium will break the world record for government formation set by the current Iraqi administration. "Support our heroic politicians in their mythical world record attempt at forming a government," the site says.
Another group has set up a "virtual camping site" outside the prime minister's office. More than 140,000 people have signed up to the online petition demanding tax be paid back if a new government cannot be formed within the next 100 days.
"What do you do if you've paid for something that doesn't work? You get your money back. Completely logical. Completely fair," the website Camping16 said. (www.camping16.be).
Belgian actor Benoit Poelvoorde has urged all Belgian men not to shave until a government is formed. So far, 635 people have uploaded pictures (www.unebelgiqueaupoil.be), showing they are growing beards in support.