Dutch government falls over Afghanistan

As long-time visitors know I occasionally talk about Dutch politics here for the benefit of my Dutch readers as well as those twelve foreign readers that are interested in these matters. Since Dutch government fell late yesterday night, it’s time for another such post.

The Balkenende IV government (i.e. the fourth government that Balkenende (CDA) was prime minister of) was formed three years ago and consists of centre-right CDA (christian-democrats), centre-left PvdA (Labour), and orthodox-protestant left-leaning CU (Union of Christians). Yesterday evening the PvdA ministers resigned over a conflict about the continuing Dutch military presence in the Afghan province of Uruzgan.

In a week and a half local elections will be held, and the PvdA was slated to lose a lot of seats everywhere. PvdA party leader and finance minister Bos clearly hopes to stem the electoral tide by his resignation, and he might well be right.

Update: This will be the last political entry on the main QuirksBlog. I now have a separate politics section with a blog as well as an article series about Dutch political history.

In any case I approve of Bos’s actions both from a policy and from a politics point of view. (Some Dutch readers will certainly disagree, and as long as they stay polite I don’t mind them commenting. These matters aren’t simple.)

Policy

The question was whether the Dutch military presence in the Uruzgan province of Afghanistan, originally planned to end by the end of this year, was to be extended for another period of time. The PvdA said No to this, while CDA and CU tended towards Yes.

Uruzgan

At the end of 2007 the Balkenende IV government decided to extend Dutch presence in Uruzgan for another two years, but commented that the final withdrawal would start in the second half of 2010. This withdrawal decision was repeated by parliament in a 2009 motion, with most of the opposition as well as PvdA and CU supporting the motion. Since then it has been clear that, although the CU might be convinced of staying in Afghanistan, the PvdA was against, and this standpoint clearly mirrored its electorate’s feelings.

What happened in the past few weeks is not entirely clear; in fact, PvdA party leader and finance minister Bos openly disagreed about the details with foreign minister and presumed future CDA party leader Verhagen in parliament. In Dutch constitutional law such sniping between fellow ministers is Not Done; government should form a coherent unity when it talks to parliament. This was definitely not the case in the last few days.

What is certain is that the NATO officially requested Dutch government to extend its mission in Afghanistan, a request that foreign minister Verhagen is now required to decline. I know little of NATO procedure, but it seems that declining such a request is Not Done. On the other hand, the NATO only makes such a request if it’s certain beforehand that the government in question will in fact accept it. Something has clearly gone wrong here.

The theory that was aired yesterday evening is that Verhagen had overstepped his mandate by informing the NATO that the Dutch would extend their presence while this matter hadn’t yet been decided on by government. Whether all this is true is uncertain, but from a politics standpoint this theory works in favour of the PvdA, as we’ll see in a moment.

Yesterday’s meeting of the council of ministers was slated to be the last one before the local elections (all ministers will be on the campaign trail next week), and the PvdA had demanded earlier that government rule out a continuing stay in Uruzgan at the present level, although alternatives, such as training local Afghan forces and helping with the development could still be discussed.

It seems that CDA and CU refused to rule out an extension of the Uruzgan mission. After a fourteen-hour marathon meeting the PvdA ministers decided to resign over this. They stated that their point of view was well known beforehand, and that parliament would never approve of an extended mission since the PvdA fraction would vote against it, together with most of the opposition.

And indeed, the PvdA’s point of view is no surprise to anyone who follows politics. What is surprising is that the PvdA didn’t cave in to the exigencies of power (as well as the CDA); a scenario that I, in any case, considered most likely until yesterday. The PvdA has rediscovered the backbone that went missing somewhere in the late eighties.

The international angle

Critics of the PvdA’s move point out that the country is making itself ridiculous in the international arena. Although they have a point of sorts, what surprised me most in yesterday evening’s coverage was that every single Dutch foreign policy “expert” was content to just repeat the US point of view without even thinking about it and without wondering what the Dutch and European interest in this whole affair is. They repeatedly conjured up Obama, who is kind of the iPhone of current politics, but did not make clear why we should unthinkingly support the US even when its policies make no sense.

Sure, the US will be disappointed because it’ll have to find another country willing to take over the Uruzgan province. Still, I feel that this is beside the point. The US strategy of occupying Afghanistan while chasing the pipe dream of making it a democratic country that will somehow magically transform itself into a reliable Western ally and a denouncer of everything Taliban is just wrong. Obama is just wrong with his troop surge; it does not serve any vital Western interest but is instead aimed at pacifying the proto-fascist wing of the Republican party that is beyond pacifying anyway.

As to the Al-Qaida training camps, what’s keeping Al-Qaida from moving them to another country? Sudan or Somalia or something? (In fact, they’ve likely already done so.) Occupying Afghanistan does not solve this problem at all.

Thus continuing presence in Afghanistan does not serve any Dutch or European interest, only a US domestic politics one. Besides, this policy will fail both in Afghanistan and in the US. So why not end our involvement now?

True, the now-crippled Dutch government, as well as its post-election successor, will catch some international flak. Still, the most likely net result of all this is that the Dutch prime minister will not be invited to have tea at the White House any time soon. That’s something we might conceivably survive as a country.

Politics

The politics of this move are considerably more complicated, and it’s in these politics that we discover the true reasons for the PvdA to resign.

A flawed government

The Balkenende IV government was flawed from the start. During the 2006 election campaign party leaders Balkenende (CDA) and Bos (PvdA) repeatedly clashed, and Balkenende succesfully painted Bos as a turncoat who time and again reneged on his promises.

The peculiarities of the Dutch political system forced both party leaders to cooperate after the elections, though, and they formed a government with an insincere smile plastered on their faces.

Argument followed protracted argument, and in the last year or so it became clear that it wasn’t a question of whether this government would fall, but when.

All this infighting has a long, long, history which you might one day read in my Dutch politics primer for foreigners. Suffice it to say that PvdA and CDA are long-time rivals, and that usually the CDA holds the upper hand because it has an alternative coalition partner in right-wing VVD, while the PvdA does not have such an alternative.

The PvdA wants revenge, and I tend to sympathise with that. The christian-democrats, especially the catholic ones, can be very, very slick and unpleasant to work with. The current state of affairs temporarily gives the PvdA the upper hand, and party leader Bos decided to use this leverage to the hilt. Good for him.

Electoral reasons

Thus, from a broad perspective the fall of government does not come as a surprise. Still, why now, and not earlier or later?

One reason is the upcoming local elections, which the PvdA was expected to lose dramatically. However, the national party leader keeping his back straight and not turncoating in the face of a christian-democratic onslaught might very well help the local party chapters.

Even better, the PvdA has made the difference between itself and the CDA very clear on a non-economic issue. The CDA has always succesfully painted the PvdA as the party of big spending (the reason Bos became finance minister is exactly to counter that story).

Therefore, breaking with government on a social-economic issue such as pensions or wages would be a political toss-up in the best case; a disaster for the PvdA in even a slightly worse scenario. Breaking on a non-economic, yet clearly important, issue is a much better idea.

Right now polls show that two thirds of Dutch favour leaving Afghanistan, with 45% feeling that this issue is worth a cabinet crisis (with 35% feeling it isn’t and the rest unsure).

The PvdA represents the voters better than the CDA right now. That’s unusual, and Bos is right in making use of that fact.

CDA in disarray

Besides, right now it seems that the CDA is in disarray and is decidedly less well prepared for general elections than the PvdA.

Although he has shown ample amounts of tenacity, prime minister and CDA party leader Balkenende has never truly convinced as a leader. All of his governments fell before their time, again and again he was unable to keep his ministers in check and provide overall direction to both party and country.

It might be time for the CDA to find a new leader. Now internal CDA fights are notoriously difficult to follow, and nobody knows exactly what’s going on, but one thing is clear: because Balkenende is a protestant, the next CDA party leader must be a catholic. And the highest catholic within the CDA is foreign minister Verhagen.

From this point of view, PvdA party leader Bos arguing with Verhagen instead of Balkenende makes a lot of sense. Bos tries to cripple the next CDA party leader before he’s even formally succeeded Balkenende.

It is very clear that a final decision on the transfer of leadership has not yet been taken. Such deliberations always take lots of time, especially with the christian-democrats who set store on proper, slow procedure that gives everybody and their dog a chance to say their say, although the final decision will rest with the party leadership.

Still, the CDA is now forced to choose between Balkenende and Verhagen quickly. Balkenende has about reached his Best-Before date, and besides he’s just lost his third cabinet from an internal argument that could have been prevented, and he’s definitely on the defensive against the PvdA right now.

However, a quick transfer of power to Verhagen might be even more problematic. First of all such transfers take time, time the CDA might not have with general elections looming near.

Secondly, it seems that the PvdA has tarred Verhagen very efficiently. Verhagen can easily be painted as yet one more insincere, sleek, slick, untrustworthy catholic politician; and this prototype has considerable power in Dutch politics. Non-catholic voters (even protestants who might otherwise vote CDA) are influenced by it. A CDA led by catholic Verhagen might be in for a rougher ride than one led by protestant Balkenende.

Thirdly, there’s orthodox-protestant CU. Of the three government parties it is the only one that has consistently shown a slight but definite gain in the polls, while both PvdA and CDA slid down. The question is whether left-leaning protestant CDA voters will leave their own party and vote CU instead. This is a disaster scenario for the CDA: the CU is the only party that can reach the CDA’s soft underbelly of Bible-inspired voters that the secular parties of left and right cannot touch.

Point is that the most efficient stop-gap against the CU is Balkenende, because he’s as protestant as CU leader Rouvoet is. If, however, a catholic were to succeed to the CDA party leadership, this might be the last straw for some protestant voters, and the CU might hugely profit.

Thus, although Balkenende is untenable, Verhagen is even more untenable. The only solution would be to elect a new protestant as party leader (there are several good candidates), but this will upset the catholic voters and party members as well as breaking a Sacred Rule.

The CDA faces a very tough choice. Even worse, it will have to decide very quickly, and if there’s one thing christian-democrats are bad at it’s deciding something quickly. On balance, it’s likely that Balkenende will stay. This is not a good choice, though, just the least bad one.

Update: The CDA party leadership has reelected Balkenende party leader with surprising speed. Apparently they feel the heat, too. But the CDA has now opted for the least bad choice.

Compare this to the PvdA, where it is clear Bos will again lead the party into the elective struggle crowned by the aura of this break in government. Besides, the PvdA seems to represent the will of the voters better than the CDA right now, its base has been galvanised by the totally unexpected show of backbone, and it is clearly unified and ready for battle.

Very nicely played, mr. Bos. My hat is off to you.

What’s next?

Prime minister Balkenende will report to the Queen, who will ask him to form a temporary caretaker government (Balkenende V) consisting of CDA and CU. General elections are expected in late May or early June.

Elections

So what will happen in the elections? First of all, a caution against polls.

Right now the polls say that the PVV of anti-Islamic mouth-frothingly angry extreme-right Geert Wilders will become the first or second party of the country. I do not believe this will happen.

When elections are still far off Dutch voters tend to vote with their underbelly. Many people will tell the pollster they’ll vote Wilders just because they’re angry at government, politics, and the world at large. When actual elections come close, however, many of them will reconsider and in the end decide to vote for a more moderate party. Thus I expect Wilders to gain a few seats, but not too many. I’d say he goes up from his current 9 (out of 150) to about 12 to 15. But that’s about it.

How CDA and CU will do is unpredictable right now; we first have to see how the leadership fight in the CDA turns out. I expect the CU to remain at or near its current 6-seat level when a protestant is in charge of the CDA, and to grow somewhat (9?) when a catholic takes over. As to the CDA, it will certainly fall somewhat from its current 41 seats.

The PvdA will do much better than in the current polls. Right now the social-democrats have 33 seats, and the polls expect them to drop to 15 to 18. It’s virtually certain that Bos’s resignation will help the PvdA considerably, and will prevent seats seeping away to its three competitors on the left flank of Dutch politics. Maybe it will stay close to its current 33 seats; let’s call it 30 to 35.

Moderate right-wing VVD will win some seats and go up from their current 21 to about 28 or so. The VVD always wins after a spell in the opposition, and although it has not provided much inspired guidance, it’s available on the right while being neither CDA nor Wilders. That’s probably a recipe for electoral gains right now.

New government

The Balkenende IV government consisted of the largest parties of the left and right, and it was a miserable failure. It seems likely that the next government will have a more clear right- or left-wing signature; especially since the big policy question will be what to do about the crisis. Do we want a left-wing or a right-wing solution?

Now historically the right is slightly bigger than the left in Dutch politics. A left-wing government, which would have to consist of at least four parties, is possible in theory, but not very likely. At least, that would be the situation in most elections. However, this year there’s a problem on the right.

The combined parties of the right might very well obtain a majority in parliament, but the point is that this includes Wilders. In order to form a right-wing government, Wilders is indispensable.

Now this opens up perspectives for the parties on the left. If their message were to be “Vote CDA or VVD, and get Wilders for free” they might actually give some voters who feel at home on the right wing but despise Wilders pause. More specifically, it will give the (smallish) evangelical left wing of the CDA an additional reason to vote CU instead. Who knows, it might even cause some VVD voters to veer leftward to D66.

Thus these elections are likely to become interesting.

Dutch politics primer

For me personally the elections also mean a tough choice. From the previous 2006 elections on I have steadily worked on a Dutch political primer for foreigners. My plan was to publish it just before the next elections, which were originally planned for May 2011. However, the current crisis has moved that date down by a year, and I’m not ready yet.

Currently I’m not sure what to do, mostly because I don’t have a lot of time I can spend on the political primer before the elections. Three out of eleven articles remain unwritten, and the other eight still need a stiff edit. I also wanted to move some of the JavaScript-generated maps to SVG, but it seems unlikely that that’s going to happen any time soon. Content first.

We’ll see. I first need to know the election date, which will probably be announced in the next week or so.

Want to comment? Go to my politics blog.

This is the blog of Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist, consultant, and trainer. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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1 Posted by qFox on 20 February 2010 | Permalink

Nice post. Explains the Dutch policies nicely, I think. Balkenende has already been chosen to remain party leader, so let's hope some other party will reach a majority this time (except for, imo, pvv) so we'll finally have some fresh blood at the reign of this country... :/ I've seen enough Potter for one decade...

2 Posted by Frans on 20 February 2010 | Permalink

I was surprised the government took this long to fall.

3 Posted by Alan Hogan on 20 February 2010 | Permalink

Thanks for that very informative post. As a Statesman, I had no idea about this, and am interested in your primer. I'm surprised so much blatant religion is involved. In the US we tend to pretend that politics and religion are separate issues — except for religious leaders and their flock, who make no bones about voting Republican for Jesus. And Fox News which paints non-Republicans, foreigners, and intellectuals as hellbound sinners.

If you need an ignorant American to point out confusing bits of your draft, let me know. http://alanhogan.com/contact

4 Posted by Lennie on 20 February 2010 | Permalink

@2 A local newspaper had a comic on the second page (sorry for the dutch): kabinet: wat valt het langzaam... tja lichtgewichten.

I'm unsure how to capture the all of it in good english tough.

I'll leave that for the other dutch readers. :-)

5 Posted by Lennie on 20 February 2010 | Permalink

On the radio: "CDA heads say they will propose Balkenende as lead for the next elections"

6 Posted by Peter Robinett on 21 February 2010 | Permalink

PPK, as an American who has spent several years in the Netherlands and who is a big fan of your take on politics, I'd love to read your primer on Dutch politics (perhaps it could be a progressively updated work?). I actually tried to get into your talk on the US election last year but the room was full!

7 Posted by boriscallens on 21 February 2010 | Permalink

Liked your article. Although I always tend to be on my guard regarding other people's political opinions, I - as a Belgian citizen - wish you could explain Belgian politics as analytical as you do with the Dutch.

8 Posted by Tijs Teulings on 21 February 2010 | Permalink

Some good insight PPK, shed some new light on some of the internals for me. I'm not sure the religion is as open and blatant, as Alan calls it, as one might think when reading your article though. Most of the christian parties seem to work quite hard at keeping up the appearance that their politics are generally conservative more than protestant or catholic. First time i'm hearing about the protestant/christian rule for the CDA party leader for instance. And in general political media coverage religion plays an almost non-existant role.

9 Posted by ppk on 21 February 2010 | Permalink

On religion in Dutch politics:

a) For about two-thirds to three-quarters of the electorate it does not play any role. In fact, because the majority is so solidly secular it's difficult for them to understand how religion still influences politics, and this tricky topic is usually left out of the analysis.

b) When talking about CDA, CU, and SGP, religion *does* play a role. It's vital to understand the relation between CDA and CU, and exactly because the CU is now on an upswing it's important to keep an eye on religion.
The CDA may lose secular voters to left (PvdA) or right (VVD), and that happens regularly. Religious voters, however, have little choice - except for the CU, which is the only other party that can reach the protestant (and catholic?) CDA voters.

c) Balkenende IV was the most christian government we've had since the fall of the KVP in the early seventies. Thus religion is temporarily more important than usual, to the disgust of the seculars.

Thus, although I agree that religion has not played an important role in most of the last forty years, it does play a role right now, and it's indispensable to understanding how the next elections will turn out.

10 Posted by Eric on 21 February 2010 | Permalink

PPK, let me echo Peter's comments, except that I am an American who *hopes* to spend more time in the Netherlands.

I wish such astute explanation of *our* politics were the mainstream of our discussion in the States.