Efrutik posed a question in the comments for the last post, and it's one commonly asked by those outside Belgium. "WHY? Why are Belgians willing to live like this, in a limbo? "
It's a question worth the effort of investigating at this point, with neither hide nor hair of a government in sight, not even on the horizon after two hundred and fifty something days.
Demystifying the Belgian mind concerning politics will not be easy. The realm of Belgian politics is murky, surreal, and tedious all at once. Though I am not fully versed in the matter I've been here long enough to gain some insight into it. Here, I roll up my sleeves and try to explain things in ungoverned Belgium, as I see them. (And because I do not claim to be an expert at understanding all nuances of Belgian government, I do welcome corrections of factual errors on my part.)
Most non-Belgians who grew up in democratic environments are raised to believe that a vote is an expression of our will. We can choose to express our political desires or not, by either going to the polls or not. We accept that the politician with the most votes in a designated area is the winner and will directly assume his/her seat in the place where governing happens. He/She will certainly not agree with all the other elected politicians who will also attend the governing place, but in order to resolve these disagreements they will make their points, and then they will all vote amongst themselves, with the winning solution being the one they will jointly pursue. Of course this is a simplification of the process but generally we think of this as their job, and so do they.
It doesn't quite work that way in Belgium.
In almost all places there are traditional steps taken in the process of forming a new government after an election. In most democratic countries the tradition is a 'formality' and is quickly done. Unfortunately, in Belgium this formality has become distorted, blown wide open, magnified and dragged out. What was once a formality is now an expansive grey-area playground in which politicians make their power-plays.
How did this happen?
After an election The King of the Belgians asks the head of one of the most popular parties to do a small formal job (the job of "informateur".) This job is to confirm that all those elected are ready and willing to form a government. (Makes sense that they should be, right? After all, just prior to being elected they were busy preaching to the people about how ready and willing they were.)
In a normal world, newly elected politicians would say to the informateur "Yes! I'm ready to get in there and argue about issues and to vote on their possible solutions!" The informateur would go back to The King and give him the thumbs-up.
The King would then choose which of the head of one of the most-voted for parties he might like as his Prime-Minister. His choice would be based on how he thinks the Belgian people will accept the new leader, which form of politics received the most votes regardless of region (in this case total votes for socialist parties outweighed total votes for more conservative parties in the country as a whole,) as well the King considers how well he feels the new Prime-Minister will do, whether he will be able to do his job both inside the country and when representing the country among other leaders. BUT, before appointing someone Prime-Minister The King also gives them a job. He makes this potential Prime Minister "the pre-formateur", and the job of the pre-formateur is to form the government. (Again, it's pretty much a formality in a normal world where the politicians have all said "Yes! We can't wait to get into that governing place so we can argue and vote!")
But - what happens when someone takes advantage of this process and says "No" to the informateur or the pre-formateur? The formal process never really addresses what happens when someone who said they wanted the job before being elected then turns around after being elected and says "Even though I was elected, and I'm now being paid to do this job... I don't want to do my job as long as I have to work in the same building as that guy who has other beliefs than my own." It's so easy to throw a wrench in the works when your system is built this way, with these formal steps. Here the process stops dead if someone says "no".
I know. This is the part where even if you were rolling your eyes at the idea of informateur and pre-formateur, you are now thinking "WHAT?"
And this is what's happened. The pre-formateur has had no success in forming a government. Talks between parties about the possibility of all going to the governing place and governing have fallen apart, again, and again, and again, and again. The King has a "caretaker government" in place while all the nonsense drags on. They are a skeleton crew comprised of members of the previous government, and their job is basically just to make sure the ship doesn't sink while everyone aboard is busy fighting. Incidentally, the caretaker government has been doing a pretty good job, which begs the question "do we really NEED all those extra politicians to run things, then?"
Back to the scrum though. There has been a lot of posturing, and use of the media to fan the flames. Various politicians have all taken their turns playing the role of diva this time around, saying "No, I simply cannot sit in a building with THAT person so long as they believe THIS THING about THIS ISSUE. I will not agree to form a government until THIS is RESOLVED."
I know. You're thinking "WHAT?" again. "Isn't the point of government to resolve differences of opinion by arguing in the governing place and then voting on them?" Aaahhh, but you see... voting is democratic, which means for politicians with extreme views, it probably isn't a good way to get your way. Playing outside the system as long as possible to the frustration and mounting embarassment of The King and the other willing politicians, not to mention the mounting worries of the world financial markets is probably a better way to get a few concessions you want, isn't it? Eventually if you can wear people down by stomping your feet and refusing to form a government, people might just give in to a few of your demands to try and get the ball rolling again.
The King, who has no power to change this process, must now realize he's screwed. He's in a position (officially) of being the man who guides the formal process, meanwhile he has no real control over it. All eyes go back to him when a pre-formateur says "I can't form a government." All he can do is try to encourage the formation of a government by telling the pre-formateur to "go back and try harder", or he can accept that government cannot be formed and agree to another election (in which case the vote could turn out similarly, and if the same politicians are elected the same problems forming a government would likely reoccur.) Quite the headache for Albert II. Catch 22. Checkmate.
His highness, King of the Belgians stewed in the failure of the pre-formateur and delivered a new scheme to the Belgians to resolve the problem: "The conciliateur". The conciliateur was also appointed by the King, and was supposed to try and find a way to calm things down enough so that the elected officials will stop all the posturing, agree to form government, and GET TO WORK.
And it worked as well as you might think. Meaning not really, because the problem of any politician being able to throw the formation of a government out the window by saying a simple "no" hasn't been solved. In fact, the conciliateur recently went to The King and threw in the towel.
Somewhere along the line the King invented a "clarificateur" as well, apparently. Yeah, I can relate there Albert II ... it gets confusing and a little clarity is always a good thing.
So - why do the people of Belgium accept what's going on right now? Because Belgians are raised to follow tradition, and having grown up here they accept that in Belgium most governmental processes take a long time. They accept the many layers of administration used to make things run. Inefficiency and delay in administration are a way of life here, and unless the delays get really extreme, people don't get upset. People are just starting to get upset now. In the past 50 days, there have been protests in the streets of Brussels and other Belgian cities, and citizens are becoming more vocally and visually demonstrative about their desire for the politicians to stop bickering and start governing.
Why has it taken this long? Well, all those layers of government act like a cushion. The administrators (not politicians) have continued working at their snail-like pace, rubber-stamping the papers that drift across their desks. The city-councils continue meeting. The caretaker government is still in place, and life plods along feeling pretty normal, despite the lack of "A Belgian" government. It makes it easier to accept the fact of no government while making it harder for Belgians to remember that the longer this continues, the less confidence international investors will have in Belgium, (which could endanger the health of the country in a whole new way.) It doesn't feel like limbo, or a crisis, even though it is in the eyes of most other countries looking at Belgium.
For those of us who know that other places don't work this way, it makes little sense. I think a lot of Belgians just don't know any better. They don't know how much better it could be with a little reform to correct that obvious and currently exploited weak-point in their political process or believe the task of untangling and simplifying the process to be so precarious that it may in fact break, rather than fix the system. I chalk much of the Belgian tranquility over no government to these things, but of course there's also apathy. You might feel that way too if you were legally obliged to vote, and then forced to see that your vote had no real correlation to the eventual tangible result. BUT, in any case you can't make a reform to the political process without the consensus of government, can you? And you can't do that if there isn't a government!
But for now there's a tradition to be followed. It's always been done this way, and it's always worked before. Just wait, you'll see. It'll work, eventually. Maybe after this next informateur?