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 Leuven a long line of students snaked through the central square for a free portion of fries, Belgium's beloved national dish, in a show of gastronomic unity. Across the linguistic border, Belgian beer was expected to flow freely in French-speaking Louvain-la-Neuve.
In Ghent, organizers hope 249 people will strip naked to mark the days of the crisis as part of a party expected to draw thousands.
"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.
"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.
"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."
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.
By Raf Casert , Associated Press