Belgium reached a record of 149 days without an acting government on Tuesday, and slumped closer to a collapse of coalition talks between the country's French and Dutch-speaking politicians.
After five months of deadlock, Flemish parties were threatening to hold a parliamentary vote yesterday to carve up a disputed bilingual electoral district in and around Brussels in their favor. Francophone parties say they will respond by walking out of the coalition talks.
Government broker Yves Leterme late on Tuesday discussed the outlines of a last-ditch compromise with Christian Democrat and Liberal parties from both sides of the language border, which slices Belgium into Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and Francophone Wallonia in the south.
The Francophone Liberals reacted negatively to Leterme's plan.
"This is not a real proposal," said Didier Reynders, leader of the Francophone Liberal party.
The Flemish parties, however, accepted Leterme's text as a basis to continue talks.
"Too bad the Francophones cannot agree and if there is no breakthrough in the coming hours it will be very difficult," Flemish Liberal negotiator Bart Somers said.
A rejection could lead to one of the biggest political crises in Belgium in the past half century.
Leterme, a Flemish Christian Democrat, was the big winner of the June 10 elections but has so far failed to achieve palpable progress on the two most divisive issues -- the rights of the Francophone minority living in Flanders and further devolution of powers to the regions.
The stalemate and the growing support of Flemish nationalist parties has sparked widespread talk of a possible breakup of the kingdom of 6 million Flemings and 4.5 million Francophones.
Some opponents of separatism in and around Brussels have responded by flying the red-black-and-yellow Belgian tricolor from their homes in a rare show of public patriotism.
Linguistic strife was also the cause of the previous record of 148 days of political stalemate in 1988. Ever since the 1960s, Belgium has moved from a unitary state to a federal one where Flanders, Wallonia and bilingual Brussels have obtained ever more powers to run their affairs.
The current dispute is over the language rights of a substantial French-speaking minority living in Flemish territory around Brussels, and a drive by economically strong Flanders for more powers to be devolved to the regions, in part to reduce the flow of Flemish tax revenues to poorer Wallonia.
If the talks collapse, King Albert II would have to take the next step, which could include trying to form a government of national unity that would include the Socialists who lost badly in the June elections.