My Right-Side-of-Lowell friend put a guilt trip on me to put out a post on the (not unexpected) fall of the Dutch Government. When I noticed Saturday morning that a 20-hour marathon Cabinet meeting resulted in the resignation of the Liberal (PvDA) ministers, I was not surprised. It doesn’t surprise me that cooler heads were unable to prevail after what must have been a tense, polarizing, and meeting. I am, however, disappointed in the outcome and a bit apprehensive about the future of the Dutch Body Politic.
Let me explain. The Dutch have a long history of governing from the middle. Due to the political system, coalition cabinets are the norm and the prominent leader of the largest party typically serves as Prime Minister for an extended period. While I haven’t researched the statistics on Cabinet longevity, only 6 post World War II cabinets have completed their term (that’s 6 out of 26!). The fact that Balkenende IV just fell indicates that 3 previous Cabinets existed under Jan Balkenende’s leadership and he hasn’t been able to go the distance with any of them. He has been the Dutch leader since 2002 and his Central Democratic Alliance (a party formed by the merge of a number of smaller, Christian-principle and center left parties) has been a major party and routinely part of the ruling coalition for the past 35 years.
The liberal Labor Party (Party van de Arbeid) has fluctuated in their popularity and swapped “largest” party status with the CDA a number of times during these past decades. The personal ambitions of its leader Wouter Bos, the Deputy Prime Minister of the fallen Cabinet, played a key role in the fall of Balkenende IV.
At the heart of the rift was the promised timeline for Dutch Troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Dutch troops support the NATO mission and are scheduled to end their rotation by the end of the year. NATO, the US, and the CDA all assessed the current situation in Afghanistan as requiring continued support of international troops to allow time for the surge to succeed. Hence, the CDA (Balkenende and his CDA Secretary of State, Maxime Verhagen) were open to debate future commitments of troops to NATO’s mission. The PvdA publicly rejected that possibility out of hand.
It seems the PvdA is not interested in facts, only perception. Their perception is that the war in Afghanistan is unpopular in the Netherlands, a perception supported by opinion polls. The poll numbers of the PvdA’s leadership (Wouter Bos) have been slipping for some time – economic turmoil will do that to you. The fact is that one of the leading Dutch newspapers (NRC Handelsblad) points out that the decision to resign will cast the PvdA as the irresponsible party, willing to let the country go ungoverned during an economic crisis, facing charges of abandoning the international community. And that this Cabinet’s fall could be a watershed moment in the history of Dutch politics.
Why am I concerned for the Body Politic in The Netherlands? In one word: Radicalization. Coalition governments do not have a long history of success and the electorate is not happy with the direction the leading parties have been advocating. Populists such as Geert Wilders threaten to undermine the historical Dutch Tolerance. There is a real possibility that the Dutch electorate might gravitate toward Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) and elevate it to a major party. It seems to me that “radicals” haven’t done much good in the world. Whether you agree with Wilders or not, it is indisputable that his and the PVV ideas, are radical departure of the Dutch norm. Radicalism may sell and make for compelling news cycles. But in the end, no radical in history has expanded the freedom of its constituents or created enduring peace and stability.