MR
21.02.10
Divided over the Afghan Issue, the Dutch Government Resigns
by Jean-Pierre Stroobants

After fourteen hours of negotiations, the Jan Peter Balkenende government failed, on Saturday, 20 February, to agree on whether to maintain the Dutch contingent in Afghanistan.  The Prime Minister announced, in the middle of the night, the resignation of his coalition, which included his party the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), the (social democrat) Labor Party (PvdA), and the small Protestant formation ChristianUnion (CU).  On Saturday afternoon, the Prime Minister officially submitted the government's resignation to the queen.  Early general elections will be held within three months.

The CDA and the PvdA, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Wouter Bos, clashed for several days on the question of a possible extension of the Dutch military mission in Oruzgan Province in southern Afghanistan.  The Netherlands has some 2,000 soldiers in the province.

After a long and tough confrontation in the cabinet, Mr. Balkenende read a statement to the press at 4 o'clock in the morning.  According to him, it was "a lack of trust" between the coalition partners and a "political mortgage" placed by the Left, eager to immediately end the mission, which made it impossible to arrive at any solution.

On Thursday in Parliament, the government was already split.  Summoned for an emergency debate, the ministers of the coalition publicly displayed their disagreements.  Though themselves divided on the continuation of the Afghan operation, various formations of the opposition coalition united to denounce the lack of cohesion of the Balkenende team and to demand its departure.

On Friday, the cabinet had to, in fact, decide whether or not to consider a demand of NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.  In a letter to the government sent on 4 February, whose content had apparently been negotiated with Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen -- a Christian Democrat, who is accused by Labor of having overstepped his mandate -- Mr. Rasmussen discussed keeping Dutch soldiers in Oruzgan, albeit in smaller numbers, until August 2011.  The soldiers were supposed to, in principle, begin their withdrawal on 1 August 2010 and complete it on 1 December.  Mr. Rasmussen also spoke of the missions to train the Afghan army and the Afghan police as well as maintaining a provincial reconstruction team.

The Labor Party could not possibly negotiate on the basis of that demand.  The CDA insisted that it was necessary to consider various scenarios, including the extension of the mission.  The third party in the coalition government, ChristianUnion, had voted with Labor for the principle of ending the mission but at the same time it held the defense portfolio.

To make matters more complex, the current situation in fact resulted from a decision made by the government in 2007.  Firmly defended by Mr. Balkenende, that decision had definitely set the beginning of the withdrawal in 2010, which was to be confirmed before the first of March this year.  Under pressure from the NATO and the United States, however, the Christian Democrats, citing the change in strategy on the ground in Afghanistan, seemed ready to revise their point of view.  Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen stressed his country's need to respect its international commitments.

The Labor Party, stung by recent revelations about the legally dubious conditions of the Dutch involvement in the Iraq war of 2003, would not, for their part, reconsider their position.  In the opinion of many observers, the firmness of the Social Democrats on what they described as a "matter of principle" has much to do with the upcoming elections.  The Dutch go to the polls on the third of March for municipal elections; the electoral prospect seemed bleak for Mr. Bos's party, which may, according to polls, risk losing half its seats in Amsterdam and suffering a marked decline in The Hague and Rotterdam.

One Out of Two Dutch Demands the End of the Afghan Mission

"We cannot fall further," the Labor Party leadership appears to have concluded.  Has the wager paid off?  By demonstrating his intransigence on Afghanistan, the Deputy Prime Minister seems, in any case, to have not only rallied his party's traditional voters (66% of them say they favor an immediate withdrawal of Dutch troops) but may have also made himself popular in the overall public opinion: one out of two Dutch would like to have the Afghan mission ended.  And the survey respondents who blame the crisis on Mr. Balkenende outnumber those who point the finger at Mr. Bos.

The legislative elections will be held in three months.  It could complicate the situation in Dutch politics a little further: the radical populist Right led by MP Geert Wilders (commanding 15-20% of voter preferences) is expected to become a spoiler in the elections and perhaps emerge as one of the main parties in the Kingdom of the Netherlands.


The original article "Divisé sur le dossier afghan, le gouvernement néerlandais démissionne" was published by Le Monde on 20 February 2010.  Translation by Yoshie Furuhashi.
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