Netherlands: Afghanistan military role triggers collapse of Dutch coalition government

Pro-establishment parties plan huge cuts programme after new elections

After a week of intense political crisis over a report concerning the support of the Netherlands government for the war in Iraq and over the question of the prolongation of the Dutch military mission in Uruzgan (Afghanistan), the Dutch government collapsed. Labour Party ministers will step down and a temporary cabinet will be appointed, consisting of ministers of the Christian Democratic Party and Christian Union, a small coalition partner.

The immediate cause of the fall of the government is the ambition of Foreign Minister (and possibly upcoming leader of the Christian Democrats) Verhagen, to prolong the Dutch military mission in Afghanistan. In 2007, the government decided that the mission would end in August 2010. Under pressure from Washington and NATO, Verhagen worked towards continuation of the Netherlands military presence (about 2,000 soldiers in Uruzgan). However, 50% of Dutch people are opposed to the mission, according to polls.

Afghanistan military role triggers collapse of Dutch coalition government

The Labour Party held on to the earlier agreement and rejected claims that the situation had changed because of President Obama’s ‘surge policy’. Under public pressure, party leader, Wouter Bos (minister of Finance), felt it was necessary to reject NATO’s request for the Dutch forces to extend the military ‘mission’ in Afghanistan, about which he stated he had not been informed. The Labour Party is also under heavy pressure from expected election defeat in local elections on 3 March.

This governmental crisis came after a long series of crises, including the ‘Joint Strike Fighter’ contract (the Christian Democrats wanted it, the Labour Party did not, but buckled), laxer rules for workplace dismissals (Christian Democrats wanted them badly, but had to back down), the evaluation of the inquiry into Dutch participation in the Iraq war (the Christian Democrats did not want an inquiry and rejected the Commission’s conclusions, which included that the war was illegal under international law, but were forced to take step back on the issue) and the increase of the retirement age to 67 (this was a bitter pill for the Labour Party and the trade unions to swallow). The huge potential for a protest movement on these issues was bungled by the trade union leadership, which is linked to the Labour Party.

The government’s conflicts and crises became more and more difficult to handle. In the background, support for right wing parties, especially Geert Wilder’s populist, anti-immigrant, Freedom Party, was growing. The Freedom Party had stated it is not participating in the local elections in March, calculating that the frustrations will continue to build and that that would give them an excellent springboard for the national parliament elections set for May 2011. Now it will be able to stand in forthcoming national elections and will aim to exploit the anti-government mood with a right wing, populist appeal.

The more fundamental issue is the programme of budget cuts, to the tune of 35 billion euros, which the government was preparing. After spending close to 90 billion euros to save the decrepit Dutch banks, the government is preparing for cuts that could shake Dutch society. Like in many other European governments, the Dutch government aims to dismantle parts of the welfare state.

New government – short term honeymoon

Currently, the Dutch working class does not have a leadership prepared to defend its class interests adequately. Originally planned elections in 2011 should have provided the organisations of the Dutch working class with time to recover from the defeat of the resistance to the increase of the pension age, and to go on the offensive industrially and politically. The Dutch pro-market parties will enter the coming parliamentary election campaign (probably to be held in early June) beating the drum that huge cuts are “necessary, unavoidable and to the ultimate benefit of ‘us’ all … ” They will try to hide the extent to which they will attack the rights and conditions of workers. The issue of cuts will be kept as vague as possible.

Afterwards, they will seek a stable government coalition to implement the draconia cuts package. But this is not as easy as it sounds. The Labour Party can no longer be counted on. The Freedom Party is not a stable factor, as shown by its predecessor in 2002, when it was part of the national government.

Unfortunately, the working class movement in the Netherlands has to be developed and even rebuilt in terms of programme, ideas, organizations and combativity (there have been good examples lately). The unions will come under pressure from below to resist further ‘crisis measures’ (i.e. cuts, job losses and wage freezes) by employers and the government. The Dutch Socialist Party – a broad reformist party which attracts sections of workers and youth – has been making overtures to the Labour Party and drifted to the right (including attacking socialists inside the SP), but mass working class resistance to the cuts agenda could change the course of the party.

With a government crisis in February, local elections in March and national elections in June, the situation in the Netherlands is becoming much more politicized. In the short term, the pro-capitalist and conservative parties may be the main electoral beneficiaries. But the measures that a new dominated coalition government will no doubt take to save capitalism will start to change the situation, leading to collisions with the working class and radicalisation. One thing is for sure, a new government will be immensely unpopular in a very short time!

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February 2010