Kidding about with coalitions

21st July 2003, Comments 0 comments

As the war rages in Iraq, questions are being asked about the quality of the news presented by the international media.

As the war rages in Iraq, questions are being asked about the quality of the news presented by the international media.

US and British "coalition" sources say the city of Umm Qasr has been taken, then we hear Iraqi resistance continued for several days; a convoy of 120 Iraqi tanks leaving Basra later becomes three tanks; UK Prime Minister Tony Blair accuses the Iraqis of executing two captured British troopers but the family of one of the victims reacts angrily to this "lie", saying the evidence points to them having died in battle.

And the Iraqi government keeps suggesting it is actually going to beat the US.

The fog of war? Propaganda? Sitting over here in the Netherlands it is very difficult to say, and the Dutch media — like its colleagues elsewhere in the world — has to struggle on as best as it can to filter out the truth from rumour and lies.

This makes it all the more inexcusable that the media here appears to be content to swallow the most outrageous spin doctoring being served up by the country's own coalition wannabes — the Christian Democrat CDA party and Labour PvdA.

Back on 22 January 2003, the Dutch public put its trust in the two parties to take over the running of the country following the ignominious collapse of the 87-day CDA-led coalition with the Liberal VVD and populist LPF.

The CDA won 44 seats and the PvdA 42 in the 150-seat Parliament, handing them the opportunity to form a viable and stable coalition government.

The CDA had wanted to return to government with the VVD but the country said no. The Christian Democrats said they had got the message loud and clear and they opened talks with Labour.

Both parties claimed they were conscious of the pressing economic and budgetary problems faced by the Netherlands and they promised to get down to business quickly.

Two months down the road, we are still waiting for results; the Netherlands is still being administered by a lame-duck caretaker cabinet, the economic situation is getting worse, and CDA and PvdA look more likely to have a punch-up than actually agree on anything.

Their formation talks have staggered from one crisis to the next as differences over Iraq and budget cuts keep pushing the CDA and PvdA apart.

But it all seems to be a game to them: one day we hear the talks are near breaking point because the good Christians in the CDA have yet again discovered the lefties in the PvdA refuse to love war. Then, the following day, the media dutifully report the parties have kissed and made up and the negotiations are back on track.

You might believe this the first time it happens, but fourth time around, credibility begins to wear a bit thin.

Yet, the media, other politicians and even the Head of State, Queen Beatrix, appear not to be in any hurry to end the charade.

The media reported on 24 March that the talks appeared doomed as the PvdA backtracked for the umpteenth time on an agreement with the CDA to sound positive about the US and British invasion of Iraq.

By Thursday evening, the same media was slavishly mouthing CDA and PvdA assertions that the atmosphere around the negotiations had cleared up and that they had made a break through by agreeing massive spending cuts.

But reading past the headlines, we find the parties reached a deal on the "easy cuts" and put off talking about more contentious issues to the following day. And they did not even mention Iraq.

This is a fool's solution. We have seen in the last few weeks that the tactic of "don't mention the war" has not worked. Each time the topic comes up, the CDA and PvdA retreat to their respective corners and come out fighting. Then after a few hours of emergency talks, the farce starts off again until the next time.

And it appears the only time they really work together is when they spin a yarn to the media about how they are friends again. More than that, the crisis talks always appear to lead to a break through — giving the false impression the formation of the government is a dead cert.

The Dutch response to America's call for allies in its invasion of Iraq is equally disingenuous: what does political but not military support actually mean?

The Netherlands sent Patriot anti-missile batteries to defend Turkey from Iraq, when other European countries demurred. Turkey is threatening to mount its own invasion of Iraq to repress the Kurds, but the Netherlands says this would not cause it to withdraw its defensive shield. But when the US asked countries to show political support by expelling Iraqi diplomats, The Hague refused.

No wonder the CDA and PvdA can't agree on Iraq; the present CDA-government does not really know where it stands either. And this means the CDA and PvdA formation talks are left to flounder.

It is time for someone to shout stop: If the CDA and PvdA are serious about representing their constituencies, there is no reason they can’t have a government in place by the end of the first week in April.

If not, they should break off the talks now and look for alternative partners, or call new elections.

But this will never happen if the politicians are not called to account and asked when they are planning to get down to the real business they were elected to do.

28 March 2003

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