The chickens have come home to roost for the Belgian government.
On Sunday, voters here went to the polls and registered their disgust with the beleaguered prime minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene, and the major governing party of the last four decades over how officials handled the latest Belgian calamity: the dioxin contamination of the country's poultry, and everything down the food chain from eggs to chocolate.
Today, Dehaene tendered the resignation of the 11-year-old center-left coalition. He cited the "dioxin effect," but the problem clearly ran deep into seams of Belgian loathing for its hapless ruling ranks.
The dioxin crisis began when the cancer-causing chemical was leaked into batches of chicken feed shipped to poultry producers in Belgium and parts of France and the Netherlands. When the problem came to light, Belgian chickens and chicken byproducts -- then pork and beef -- were hastily banned across Europe and Asia.
Belgians flocked across their borders to buy chickens and eggs as Dehaene's government sacked ministers and, once the crisis passed, urged people to buy Belgian. The economy is expected to take a billion-dollar hit, to say nothing of another exposure to international ridicule: after the mad cows of Britain, the toxic fowl of Belgium.
For Belgians, the dioxin crisis was just the most recent tribulation in what has seemed to them a string of unrelenting woes this decade.
In 1991, one of Belgium's deputy prime ministers was gunned down in a contract killing; the case remains unsolved. Belgian peacekeeping troops undertook a retreat during the 1994 massacres in Rwanda, a former Belgian colony. Last year, one of Belgium's most illustrious civil servants, former NATO secretary general Willy Claes, was convicted on bribery charges.
In 1996, police incompetence allowed a pedophilic child murderer, Marc Dutroux, to ply his grisly trade undetected as five girls died. The official bungling continued as the most reviled man in Belgium managed to escape from prison. He was later recaptured -- amid a global round of Inspector Clouseau jokes.
All the while, the country has been moving inexorably toward partition, between the Flemish-speaking majority in the north and the French-speaking minority in the south. Powerful regional and language-based movements have left the federal government bereft of many traditional powers of the modern European state. It is some measure of his political skills that Dehaene's government was still expected to eke out a third mandate in Sunday's vote.
But then the dioxin scandal struck. Two weeks before election day, top ministers admitted to knowing about the problem for months but not having warned the public.
The European Union, Belgium's neighbors and poultry patrons were outraged. Bans on Belgian meats of all kinds proliferated, and the shelves of Belgian supermarkets were as bare as Belgian menus. Dehaene managed to get tested Belgian food back on sale only on Saturday, too late.
"You can fail once, but when you fail over and over again, there's something deeply wrong," reelected liberal senator Alain Destexhe said today.
The voters' thirst for change has given the free-market liberal parties (all Belgian parties come in French and Flemish varieties) the opportunity to form a government, something they haven't done since 1958.
The new power to be reckoned with in Belgium, as elsewhere in Europe after Sunday's European Parliament elections, is the greens, who capitalized on the obvious connection between their message and the tainted food crisis.