Dutch cabinet, Balkenende's fourth, collapses

Dutch prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende gives a press conference announcing the fall of his fourth coalition government.

By AP, NRC

The Dutch coalition government fell in the early hours of Saturday morning because it could not come to an agreement over whether to extend the Netherlands' military mission in Afghanistan.

Labour, the second largest party in his three-party alliance, is quitting what had always been an uneasy partnership with the larger Christian democratic CDA and junior partner ChristenUnie, a small orthodox Christian party.

After a 16-hour cabinet meeting in The Hague last night, prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende gave a brief press statement explaining the parties have no confidence left in each other. "Where there is no trust, it is difficult to work together," Balkenende said. "There is no road left for this cabinet to walk."

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Labour leader, and now ex-finance minister, Wouter Bos had given the cabinet a Friday deadline to confirm it would withdraw all 1,600 Dutch soldiers from the Afghan province Uruzgan no later than December 2010. The CDA and ChristenUnie refused to comply with his demand, which goes against the explicit wish of Nato for the Netherlands to stay longer. The Nato secretary general filed an official request for the extension of the Dutch mission earlier this month.

Elections by May

When ministers could not agree on the issue, nor confirm their trust in each other, Labour decided to quit the coalition."A plan was agreed to when our soldiers went to Afghanistan," said Labour leader Bos. "Our partners in the government didn't want to stick to that plan, and on the basis of their refusal we have decided to resign from this government."

Balkenende said his own CDA would continue in office together with ChristenUnie, and would offer the resignation of Labour's ministers to the Queen on Saturday. Together, the remaining parties hold 47 of the 150 seats in Dutch parliament. The minority government is expected to announce elections by May.

None of Jan Peter Balkenende's previous coalition governments completed their terms. The 53-year-old has led a so-called rump cabinet once before. His first cabinet, formed in 2002, collapsed after just 86 days, because of internal issues within the LPF party, which was left leaderless after the murder of populist politician Pim Fortuyn just one week before the elections. The smallest party in his second government, left-wing liberal D66, quit the coalition after three years. Balkenende continued, in his third cabinet, with just the right-wing liberals VVD until elections were held again in 2006. The current minority cabinet will officially be his fifth.

Acrimony surfaced again

The Christian-Labour coalition marks its third year in office on Monday. At its installation, the coalition promised to bring stability and social cohesion after a turbulent period of reforms. But the CDA-Labour alliance was one of convenience from the start.

Balkenende and Bos had exchanged unusually sharp remarks during the 2006 election campaign and their acrimony surfaced again during a parliamentary debate Thursday over Afghanistan. The two government leaders were caught in open discord in front of concerted attacks by the opposition parties.

Early elections

The immediate departure of Labour ministers from the fourth Balkenende government leaves a so-called rump cabinet. The CDA and ChristenUnie parties will continue until early elections are held. The six ministers from the Labour party will be replaced. In similar situations in the past, this meant deputy ministers were promoted to lead their departments.

Prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende will first visit queen Beatrix, the Netherlands' head of state, to offer the resignation of his cabinet. She will ask him and his remaining ministers to "do what is in the nation's interest". The minority government can run the country, but not make controversial decisions.

The remaining cabinet will have to announce early parliamentary elections within 83 days after the queen accepts its resignation. This would mean election for the Lower House will be held by May.

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