Has Balkenende got what it takes?
Buoyed by the recovering economy Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's Christian Democrats (CDA) expect to return to government after the general election on 22 November. But is this confidence justified?
Balkenende - his fate depends on the Liberals
Ministers Aart Jan de Geus (Social Affairs), Ben Bot (Foreign Affairs) and Agnes van Ardenne (Development Aid) have ruled themselves out from the party's list of MP hopefuls. They are prepared, however, to return to Cabinet.
Karla Peijs (Transport), Cees Veerman (Agriculture) and junior minister Clémence Ross (Sport) are not running for parliament or making themselves available for ministerial positions. Veerman and Ross are leaving politics, while Peijs would like a seat in the Senate.
Last year this could have been interpreted as a sign the rats were deserting a sinking ship. The CDA's poll numbers were in the doldrums and support for the opposition Labour Party (PvdA) was in the high 50s.
Since then an economic recovery has kicked in and the CDA's fortunes has revived. The party expects to do well in the election, and current ministers don't want to attract public disapproval by leaving parliament to get a 'cushy job' in government.
Labour leader Wouter Bos has warned his followers that the election will be a neck-and-neck race with the CDA. The party that wins the highest number of the 150 seats in parliament will get the first shot at forming the next governing coalition.
The CDA is already in bed with the Liberals (VVD) and they plan to continue the marriage after the election. Labour, on the other hand, is without an obvious partner; Bos's choice would be a PvdA-CDA government. Balkenende isn't interested.
A left-wing coalition of the PvdA, Socialist Party (SP) and green-left GroenLinks is unlikely to have the numbers, and the very idea could scare away many of Labour's more conservative supporters.
This puts Balkenende in quite a good position. Barring any national (or international) crisis, his main concern will be whether the Liberals - led by Mark Rutte, with Rita Verdonk breathing down his neck - can win enough seats to make a CDA-VVD viable.
CDA leader Balkenende has shown himself to be a good builder but a bad chairman when faced with difficulties within government.
Having rode out the Pim Fortuyn earthquake and murder, Balkenende managed to lead his party to victory in the 2002 election. He formed a government with the Liberals and Fortuyn's LPF, only to sit back and watch the quarrelsome populists rip the coalition apart in a record 87 days.
Lady luck didn't abandon Balkenende. The CDA nipped the PvdA at the post in the subsequent election. First toying with the idea of a grand coalition with Labour, Balkenende deftly switched back to the Liberals and the small Democrat D66.
The coalition forced through some of the most unpopular cutbacks and reforms in years, as Balkenende promised the pain would be followed by the gain - in time for the election scheduled in 2007.
Just as this appeared to be coming true, he again stood back as D66 postured and threatened to walk out of the government. Balkenende was assuring everyone who would listen on 29 June this year that D66's withdrawal of support had no consequences for his government. The next day he went to Queen Beatrix and tendered his ministers' resignation.
There was a certain logic to Balkenende's actions. He wanted to get rid of the troublesome D66 and continue in government with the Liberals. Parliament gave him his wish: the Liberals and CDA are to run the country in a minority government until the election.
But this means, for better, or for worse Balkenende's fate is tied to the Liberals. If Rutte and Verdonk don't deliver the 30 plus seats needed to form a coalition, the CDA may be left out in the cold. D66 is unlikely to be in a position, or willing, to join another coalition, and an alliance between the CDA, Liberals and small Christian parties would be unwieldy.
Going back, cap in hand, to the Fortuyn-inspired right-wing gr