IHS Global Insight Perspective
On Saturday (20 February), the Dutch Labour Party, led by Finance Minister Wouter Bos, walked out of government following the failure of 16-hour talks over a NATO request to extend the Dutch mission in the southern Afghan province of Uruzghan.
The Dutch withdrawal from Afghanistan could prompt others to reconsider their military presence in the war-torn country.
A caretaker government will now assume power until the next general election, which is likely to be held in May or June this year.
Fourth Time in a Row…
The Dutch government of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende collapsed in the early hours of Saturday morning (20 February) when the Labour Party (PvdA) left the coalition following a debate on whether or not to extend the Dutch military presence in war-torn Afghanistan. Earlier this month, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen had requested that the Netherlands remain in Afghanistan until August 2011—eight months longer than the planned end of the Dutch mission—to take on a new role training Afghan security staff. Although the prime minister supported NATO's request, Finance Minister and PvdA leader Wouter Bos had publicly announced that his party would honour its pledge to voters that Dutch troops would leave Afghanistan by the end of this year, and asked the ruling coalition to reject NATO's request (see Netherlands - Afghanistan: 18 February 2010: Divisions Emerge in Dutch Coalition Government over Continuation of Afghan Mission). The Dutch cabinet has been under considerable pressure since the start of the year, with divisions emerging over a number of issues, including the austerity measures announced in the 2010 budget and the critical independent parliamentary report accusing Balkenende's government of having withheld detailed information from the lower house of parliament prior to the Netherland's political participation in the 2003 Iraq war. The collapse of the government marks the fourth time that a cabinet led by Balkenende has failed to make it through a full term.
Question-Marks over International Participation in Afghan Mission
Following the cabinet's collapse, Balkenende has announced that Dutch troops are now expected to return home from Afghanistan by the end of this year as originally planned. Currently, there are around 1,800 Dutch soldiers stationed in Afghanistan, the majority of them in the active war zone of Uruzghan under the leadership of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) programme. Since the start of the mission in 2006, 21 Dutch soldiers have died, reducing support for the country's involvement in Afghanistan among the public. The Netherlands' decision will be a setback for U.S. president Barack Obama, who has been urging NATO member states to strengthen their military presence in Afghanistan. Moreover, the withdrawal of Dutch troops could have wider implications for the Afghan mission in general. Public support for the mission in NATO member states is gradually decreasing in reaction to the worsening security situation in the country, as well as the increasing number of casualties, even among soldiers performing non-combat activities. For instance, the French and German governments are reluctant to increase their military presence in Afghanistan; furthermore, despite initial pledges from British prime minister Gordon Brown, his government is also feeling the pressure as a result of high casualties. Australian foreign minister Stephen Smith has also warned that Australia cannot "take up the lead" in Uruzghan if Dutch soldiers withdraw.
It is not likely that the Netherlands' decision will cause a sudden exodus of other NATO members' troops. However, the psychological blow of the Dutch departure could set the scene for other nations to reduce their involvement in the Afghan mission in future. As for the Netherlands, Balkenende has raised concerns that the withdrawal of troops could damage Dutch influence in international bodies such as NATO and the Group of 20 (G20) in future.
Outlook and Implications
The PvdA's hardline stance on the Afghan mission has in part been informed by the fact that the Netherlands is staging local elections on 3 March. As a result, Bos cannot be seen to be backtracking on his promise to pull Dutch troops out of the war zone, or else he would risk a backlash at the polls. A public opinion poll conducted by Maurice de Hond indicates that the PvdA is expected to gain four seats at the next parliamentary election, increasing its presence from the current 19 seats. In contrast, although the polls indicate that the senior Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) would still emerge as the strongest party at the election, it would lose one seat in parliament. Furthermore, support for Balkenende is diminishing: the polls show only 16% support for his continued leadership of the government.
The next general election, which will probably be held in May or June, could prove very fruitful for the smaller political parties, such as the controversial right-wing Freedom Party (PVV) of Geert Wilders. Wilders, who is known for his strong anti-immigration and anti-Islam rhetoric, has seen his popularity in the Netherlands rising amid public dissatisfaction with growing illegal immigration in the country. In recent months, various opinion polls have indicated that the PVV could win as many as 24 seats in the 150-member parliament, a dramatic increase from its current nine seats. So far, no party has ruled out a coalition with the PVV; the party might also agree to provide parliamentary support to a minority government in return for support for the PVV's legislative agenda.Balkenende has also suggested that there is a constitutional possibility that the election will not be held until the originally scheduled date in May 2011. Such a senario is, however, unlikely. The Dutch economy has been hit by the global economic downturn and the country needs a firm hand on the tiller to help it on its path to sustainable recovery. The primary issues that need to be addressed include the expanding fiscal deficit and rising unemployment. In order to tackle such problems, it would be in the country's best interests to have a new government in place as soon as possible, since any interim administration would lack the power to enact essential legislation, intensifying the Netherlands' economic woes.