BRUSSELS — For nearly two years, Belgium has been without a formal government, leaving a country that was already divided by language and politics to endure a pandemic with lame-duck caretakers wielding emergency powers.
A fragile coalition government finally took power on Thursday, ending one of the longest political stalemates in the Western world. Cobbled together from seven political parties, the partnership keeps a growing far-right movement at bay for now and should allow the country to finally pass a budget and consider a Covid-19 recovery package.
But the transition, which is set to be formally adopted by lawmakers this weekend, is not without risk. The governing coalition is now so large that any disagreement has the potential to topple it. And ushering in a new government means forcing out the ministers who have overseen the pandemic response — at a time when infections and hospitalizations are rising.
“The government will do everything possible to contain outbreaks quickly and locally,” the new prime minister, Alexander De Croo, said in a national address in which he compared the pandemic to the Great Depression of the 1930s. “Our country, our economy and our businesses cannot take another general lockdown.”
Belgium is notoriously difficult to govern. The wealthy Dutch-speaking region in the north and a poorer French-speaking region in the south each have their own governments, political parties and cultures. That makes the national Parliament a political grab bag, with no party holding close to the majority needed to govern.
The previous national government collapsed in December 2018, toppled by a populist revolt over migration. Belgium’s linguistic and cultural divide magnifies the similar challenges facing leaders across Europe and the United States, where centrist politicians face pressure from their far left and far right. In that way, the new government will be a test, in the heart of the European Union, of whether fractured parties can find common ground.
Mr. De Croo (pronounced “crow”), 44, was sworn in on Thursday as prime minister. A center-right Dutch-speaking politician, he will lead an unlikely coalition that includes the Socialists and the Greens, along with centrists and socially liberal fiscal conservatives. The newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws called it “a government deal worthy of a buffet restaurant.”
With such a range of political views, the government is vulnerable to any dispute. If one party defects, the coalition is likely to collapse.
“In Belgium, it’s always fragile,” said Philippe De Backer, who until Thursday led the government’s emergency task force for coronavirus testing and protective equipment. But he said that the new government would inherit a stockpile of 200 million medical masks and the ability to test 45,000 people a day.
The country recently surpassed 10,000 coronavirus deaths and has one of the world’s highest per capita fatality rates. That figure is due in large part to the government’s failure to protect older adults. Nursing home patients accounted for two of every three Covid-19 deaths this spring, and public health officials have acknowledged that the country’s unwieldy bureaucracy