On Tuesday, the United States will face-off against Belgium after advancing for the second time in a row to the “knockout stage” of the World Cup. After the astronomical numbers of Americans watching the Cup during the last round, today’s game is hotly anticipated. Less popular among Americans: Washington — as evidenced in both Congress’ abysmal polling numbers and at the reaction to last year’s shutdown fiasco. No matter what happens on the pitch this afternoon, though, Americans can be proud that the U.S. is actually not number one in the world when it comes to political gridlock. There, our competitors clearly takes the crown.
The winning move in the competition, it seems, is simply not to play: Belgium at the moment doesn’t have a head of government. In May, Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo handed in his resignation to King Phillipe after his party lost the most recent round of elections. The government will continue to function while Phillipe’s informateur tries to find enough common points between the parties to lead to the appointment of a formateur who will actually form a coalition.
To compare this as best as possible to the American political process, imagine that the Democrats, Republicans, and a smattering of the small independent parties all won enough seats in Congress that none have a solid majority. The head of state — in the case of Belgium, the king; in this fictional version of the U.S. the president — names one person to lead the negotiations among them to find enough common points to have a Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader named from among the winning parties. Picture that this is also going on at the same time as the North and South are negotiating governments among the same factions. Also imagine that the two main factions are split on not just language, but whether they want the country to remain a unified whole.
If this sounds difficult, that’s because it is. In Belgium, political allegiances are split between Flemish and Walloon — or Dutch and French speakers — corresponding with the north and south of the country. “The electoral system — effectively two elections with separate French-speaking and Dutch-speaking parties appealing to different voters — means at least four parties, and two from each side, will be needed to form a governing coalition,” Reuters explained immediately after the May election. Already, Phillipe has had to relieve Bart De Wever of the Flemish separatist N-VA party that won the most seats in Parliament from his role as informateur, replacing him with French-speaking Charles Michel.
The current month-long negotiations pale in comparison to the length of time it took to form the last government. It took a record-breaking 589 days between 2010 and 2011 to form the outgoing tripartate government that Di Ruppo headed until last month. That Belgium managed to actually survive for this long without a government can be explained through the difference that most Europeans see between “the state” and “the government,” as Washington Monthly explained last year:
Most Europeans understand “the state” to be the entity that represents a political community sharing a history and constitution, holding a seat at the U.N., and symbolically headed not by the prime minister but by a constitutional monarch or a ceremonial president. The military, the courts, and the administrative bureaucracy are all part of “the state” — and as such are apolitical and insulated from partisan rancor. By contrast, “the government” is the much smaller and more transient group of Cabinet ministers who happen to have support of a parliamentary majority at any time.
The extreme level of federalization in Belgium, where the Flemish and Walloon regions mostly govern themselves, also helped cushion the blow of going that long without a federal government in Brussels, as did the use of a “caretaker government.” While the U.S. has no such provision, Congress frequently passes continuing resolutions to keep the government afloat in what could be considered “caretaker budgets.” Given the fact that at least Washington can decide on just who is running the show in the halls of power, though, the Belgians have a clear leg-up on the U.S. when it comes to dysfunction.