Lubbers to the rescue?

3rd July 2006, Comments 0 comments

The job of patching up the coalition looks deceptively easy for the longest-serving prime minister in the Netherlands. But Ruud Lubbers knows there are plenty of risks ahead before Balkenende III can even get off the ground.

Ruud Lubbers set about his job of patching up the ruptured Dutch government with gusto on Monday.  We can expect, he says, to have Balkenende III at work within two weeks.

*sidebar1*The question is whether he is trying to convince the public or himself? And, even if he gets the government back on the rails there is no guarantee it will get to the elections in November.

Lubbers' return to the limelight comes as junior coalition partner, D66, pulled the plug on Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's three-party coalition last week after the CDA and VVD refused to sacrifice controversial Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk (VVD).

The task before Lubbers, a fellow Conservative, looks deceptively simple. The CDA and Liberals have said they want to continue in government together to introduce the 2007 Budget in September. The CDA has 44 seats in parliament and the Liberals have 28. This leaves them four seats short of a majority in the 150-parliament.


Queen Beatrix, the Head of State, named him a informateur on Saturday to investigate, on behalf of the Crown, whether the proposed CDA-VVD minority government is a viable option.

He began the day on Monday by meeting the chairpersons of the Upper and Lower Houses of Parliament, before a series of meetings to sound out the party leaders on the prospects of forming a minority Christian Democrat (CDA)-Liberal (VVD) coalition government.

Officially, Lubbers is only responsible for investigating the chances of getting the government off the ground. It will be the job of an formateur to chair the talks between the CDA and Liberals to agree a coalition accord.  

Yet Lubbers, the longest-serving prime minister in the Netherlands, knows it will not reflect well on him if the adventure turns sour later on. The big question is whether his report to the Queen Beatrix will include the risks ahead or, reflecting the eagerness of the CDA and VVD, gloss over them.

The Queen has accepted the argument that the Budget can't wait until after the general election in November. The left-wing opposition parties have been lacklustre in the contention that the CDA and VVD should continue in a caretaker capacity and avoid taking any controversial decisions prior to the election.

Lubbers was scheduled on Monday to meet with the leaders of Labour, the Socialist Party and green-left GroenLinks to hear their arguments. But the political scales seem to be tipped towards a restart by the CDA-VVD "in the interests of the country".

The major constraints on such an administration are that it will not have a natural majority in parliament and its mandate will expire shortly after the November election.

Balkenende's new government will require support of one or more of the parties currently in opposition to do this. The obvious choice is the populist LPF, but this entails a host of difficulties, even potential disaster.

Opposition support

The LPF doesn't fit the normal definition of a party. It was founded by populist Pim Fortuyn as a vehicle of necessity in February 2002, three months shy of a general election.

He had been expelled from another party for his uncompromising demands for a halt to immigration and the abolition of the anti-discrimination clause in the Constitution. Fortuyn did not have time, or particular interest in, vetting the people who flocked to the party.

Fortuyn was assassinated nine days before the election. The 28 people elected in his name - including porn site owners and talentless megalomaniacs - lacked political experience and spent more time fighting each other than promoting his ideas. Participation in Balkenende I ensured the coalition didn't even survive for 100 days. It managed 87.

The LPF was reduced to eight seats in the subsequent election but the party still lacks cohesion. Former LPF MP Hilbrand Nawijn has already established his one party and one or more of the remaining LPF contingent has plans to jump ship to a new right-wing grouping as soon as the opportunity arises.  

Opinion polls suggest the LPF will not have any seats in parliament after the next election.

Lubbers will be keen to establish whether the LPF can avoid further internal disputes until November.  There is also the danger that the LPF won't be able to resist pushing its own agenda - tougher on immigration and crime and skeptical on Europe - if given the chance. Any attempt to blackmail the minority government into doing its bidding could lead to the collapse of Balkenende III before its time.

If the LPF destabilises, a CDA-Liberal government would be forced to shop around for another four votes in parliament. Labour (42 seats) may support it on some issues but it is not about to rubber-stamp the 2007 Budget. Labour leader Wouter Bos has gone on record to express the hope controversial legislation will be put on the back-burner for now.

Other potential sources of support are the small Christian parties, SGP (2 seats) and the ChristenUnie (3 seats). But the ChristenUnie voted in favour of getting rid of Verdonk and has taken stands to the left of the CDA in recent times. 

D66 agree with much of Balkenende's reforms but the split last week and the continued presence of Verdonk in government means the CDA and VVD can't take its support for granted.

Verdonk factor

Verdonk has proven to be a lightning rod for controversy. Her brash and unapologetic approach led to the downfall of Balkenende II at the end of June, the latest in a line of clashes with parliament about her handling of the Immigration brief.

Ruud Lubbers...hopes touchy feely approach will speed up government formation

She still has naturalisation legislation to steer through parliament. Her proposals have already drawn criticism from lawmakers and watchdog agencies. The draft law is bound to attract more opposition, which, in turn, could reveal the less than conciliatory side of Verdonk's nature.  

Verdonk is being courted by Fortuynist Marco Pastors to join his nascent right-wing movement. After losing the race to lead the VVD, Verdonk pledged her loyalty to the party. No doubt she means this with all her heart, but her track record shows that she is not averse to changing her mind.

Any assessment of the prospects for Balkenende III should look at the Verdonk factor. The brief Lubbers has been given doesn't allow this, so Balkenende III may end up looking better on paper than it is in reality.

If Balkenende is lucky, his third coalition will limp through to November. If not, he can forget about even coming close to Lubbers' record of 12 years as prime minister of the Netherlands. And Lubbers can forget about ending his political career with a success.

[Copyright Expatica 2006]

Subject: Dutch news

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