The Dutch electorate takes to the polls tomorrow, following the Government’s collapse in April. In fact, it was the fourth fallen Administration of Christian Democrat Jan Peter Balkenende—this time over claims that one coalition party withheld information from another. Quite simply, it looks as if the uneasy partnership between Labour and Christian Democrats finally gave way after much political infighting. The government’s declining enthusiasm to fulfill NATO’s request to extend the Dutch deployment to Afghanistan was merely a convenient scapegoat.
The polls have had almost every major contender leading the field at some point in the past eight weeks, including controversial right-winger Geert Wilders. However, his Party for Freedom’s initial early showing has slipped, showing them now finishing last in the latest national polling although still set to pick up more seats than at present. The front-runner to become Prime Minister and take a shot at forming a coalition looks set to be the youthful Mark Rutte, leader of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. The classical liberal has already ruled out forming a coalition with Wilders’ and a three-way coalition is now likely with Labour and the Christian Democrats.
As with most elections in Europe, the top issue affecting voters is the economy. It seems that the electorate has finally come to terms with the fact that governments shouldn’t spend more than they earn, and that cut-backs are now inevitable; better to get the pain over with sooner rather than later. But there is one budget that the Dutch cannot afford to cut: the defense budget. Past defense cuts, as well as operational costs, have already placed a tremendous strain on Holland’s military capabilities. A further round of cuts will likely leave the Netherlands unable to contribute substantively to NATO missions in the future.
Dutch troops have fought bravely in Afghanistan, enduring long deployments in hostile provinces where German, Turkish and French troops among others, have been barred from going by their national capitals. Dutch forces are scheduled to leave Afghanistan on August 1—at precisely the time when they will be needed most, to support the hardest push of General McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy. It is difficult to ask the Dutch to extend their deployment when others are not equitably sharing the burden. But the US will ask nonetheless and despite the political difficulties, the next Prime Minister should respond positively.
The mission in Afghanistan is not a war of choice. With a catalog of successful and thwarted al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on Britain and Europe since 9/11, it is imperative that all NATO members recommit to the mission in Afghanistan. The horrific terrorist attacks on London and Madrid, and Dutch-based Islamist attacks in Holland, serve as stark reminders of why NATO undertook the Afghanistan mission in the first place.