Yves Leterme, left,  has achieved little progress on the issue of devolution [AFP]

Belgium has broken its own record for the longest period without a new government.

The political deadlock between the country's Flemish and French-speaking politicians has seen speculation grow that Belgium may eventually split up.

The country marked 149 days without a new administration on Tuesday, nearly five months after elections on June 10 and surpassing a record set in 1988.

The winner of that vote and the country's would-be prime minister, Yves Leterme, is under growing pressure to defuse soaring tensions between the four main parties as he struggles to broker a coalition alliance between them.

But Leterme, a Flemish Christian Democrat, has so far failed to achieve any tangible progress on the two most divisive issues -  the rights of the Francophone minority living in Flanders and further devolution of powers to the regions.

On Tuesday Leterme met representatives from the Christian Democrat and Liberal parties from both sides of the language border which slices Belgium into Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and southern, francophone Wallonia.

'On the brink'

Flemish parties are threatening to hold a parliamentary vote on Wednesday to divide a disputed bilingual electoral district in and around Brussels in their favour.

Coalition talks are currently focused on special rights which allow French-speakers in the Flemish suburbs of mainly Francophone Brussels to vote outside their locality.

Francophone parties say they will respond to the Flemish vote by walking out of the coalition talks.

"We cannot accept that one [linguistic] community refuses to negotiate and imposes its vision," Melchior Wathelet, the negotiator for the Francophone parties, said.

"We are a bit on the edge of the abyss," Karel De Gucht, the foreign minister said. "You cannot stay there for too long."

Bart Somers, the leader of the Flemish liberals, said the country was "on the brink of an institutional crisis".

Parting of ways?

Leterme's Flemish Christian Democrats, which came out on top in the June 10 election, campaigned at the time for more powers, especially regarding the economy, to be devolved to regional governments.

However, the issue is highly sensitive in the poorer region of Wallonia, the Francophone southern half of Belgium, because many French-speaking politicians fear it would mark the first step to a possible split.

That is a prospect that many people in the northern region of Flanders appear to want, according to a survey published on Monday in the Flemish newspaper Het Laatse Nieuws, which found that 44.4 per cent of Flemish want Belgium to break up.

Although day-to-day business is still handled by the outgoing administration of Guy Verhofstadt, the prime minister, new leadership is increasingly needed to undertake fresh policy initiatives such as drafting the 2008 budget.

Source: Agencies