It is difficult to imagine how caretaker Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende kept a straight face on 10 April when he pontificated about how the global community had to pitch in to bolster democracy in newly liberated Iraq.It is difficult to imagine how caretaker Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende kept a straight face on 10 April when he pontificated about how the global community had to pitch in to bolster democracy in newly liberated Iraq. The country faces some difficult times going forward, he noted wisely.
He could just as easily have been talking about his own situation and the abject failure of his Christian Democrat CDA party to agree a coalition deal with the rival Labour PvdA. The two groups finally admitted at 11pm on Thursday night that they had nothing to show for their negotiations over the last two-and-a-half months.
Now the talks have failed, the search for a new coalition has to start all over again and the prospect of alternative alliances unlikely. The voters may be forced to go to the polls again to try and sort out the political mess that has deprived the Netherlands of a proper government for the last 12 months.
The most annoying aspect of this debacle is that it does not come as a surprise. Way back in January, the CDA and PvdA agreed to hit the ground running and come to a quick agreement on forming the next government. But it was clear Balkenende's CDA had little interest in getting into bed with the social democrats.
The CDA had everything going for it. Balkenende's first coalition with the Liberal VVD and populist LPF collapsed ignominiously after just 87 days in office in 2002. Yet the Dutch public expressed confidence in Balkenende, and the CDA remained the biggest group with 44 of the 150 seats in Parliament in the general election on 22 January. The PvdA came a close second on 42 seats.
The electorate gave a clear signal that a CDA-PvdA coalition was the preferred option. But Balkenende was not happy. He wanted to get back into office with his VVD allies — an option the voters rejected.
Eventually, when it was obvious there was no other option, Balkenende grudgingly opened negotiations with the PvdA and the talks have lurched from crisis to crisis since then, before finally keeling over and dying on 10 April.
While PvdA leader Wouter Bos must bear some responsibility for the fiasco, Balkenende is the main culprit.
Totally convinced that he and his CDA are on a divine mission to "save" the Netherlands after eight years of a PvdA-led coalition (which included the VVD), Balkenende refused to make any real concessions in the formation talks.
Everyone acknowledges that the economic climate is grim, but few people seem to revel in this as much as Balkenende. He never misses a chance to proclaim how dire the situation is and how it is only getting worse. A prognosis which has convinced him that everything has to be subordinated to the drive to balance the budget by 2007.
Economists have warned his fixation with eliminating the deficit by making EUR 18-20 billion in spending cuts and tax hikes could cripple the Dutch economy. Does Balkenende modify his goals? No, instead he tinkers with the figures and gets annoyed when the PvdA refuses to accept a new austerity package that differs radically from the one negotiated over the last 80-odd days.
Everyone agrees the health service is under-funded and in administrative chaos, so Balkenende's answer is cutbacks. The police are understaffed and under-funded, Balkenende says government agencies should work more efficiently.
This coming from a politician who stood idly by while squabbling within the LPF destroyed his first government. And he has not learned from that mistake.
A deadly virus has been ravaging the Dutch poultry sector since early March and Agriculture Minister Cees Veerman has admitted he has failed to stop it spreading. Where is Balkenende and why has he not stepped in to take charge?
It seems he is more interested in sending Dutch troops to help the US rebuild post-war Iraq. At the same time, he has done nothing constructive to heal the rift with near neighbours, Germany, France and Belgium, who took a more critical view of the US-led war in the Gulf. In fact, Balkenende prefers to thumb his nose at these countries rather than treat them as equal European partners with a valid point of view.
If Balkenende is to have a third shot at leading the Netherlands, he must concentrate far more on being a team player. It is time Balkenende rediscovered some of that flair for consensus that typified the 'polder model' of politics the Netherlands championed over the last decade.
11 April 2003