Deputy prime minister Wouter Bos was finally allowed to address parliament an hour after midnight during the debate Wednesday night. Until then, the leader of Dutch Labour party PvdA had sat silently beside prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende, his head bowed modestly, constantly fidgeting with his Blackberry. The body language of the leaders of the two largest governing parties revealed a fissure between them that words did not express.
Bos’ Labour party, PvdA, was trying hard not to wallow too much in its victory, striving to remain cool and collected, and not aggravate the prime minister’s Christian democrat CDA party any further. With good reason: it was the second time Balkenende had been publicly humiliated on the Iraq issue. A year ago, he had been forced to consent to an inquiry into the events leading to the Iraq invasion. An inquiry he had opposed for a very long time.
On Wednesday, Balkenende had to bow even more deeply. For seven years the prime minister had maintained that a “sound legal pretext” had been established for the Anglo-American invasion, and that Dutch political support for it had therefore been legitimate. After a hapless press conference on Tuesday, and a day of terse deliberations Wednesday, Balkenende had to admit that “in hindsight” a “more adequate legal pretext under international law” should have been established before the invasion.
Balkenende's last resort: admit fault
He had run out of other options as the cabinet skated along the edge of the abyss on Wednesday. The prime minister and his party had come to realise that the PvdA would never waver in its demand that Balkenende concur with the Davids committee’s most important conclusions. Toppling the sitting government at a time of economic crisis would not go over well with CDA voters, at least not over the issue at stake here.
A parliamentary debate followed the cabinet’s admission of fault, continuing into the small hours of the morning. Opposition parties were eager to pour salt on any open wound they could find. Balkenende was not their only target. Bos also met with parliamentary disapproval, since he had lent his approval to Balkenende’s objections to the Davids committee’s harsh conclusions. The opposition was keen to point out that Bos shared responsibility for the near-crisis of this week.
Balkenende and Bos did everything they could to emphasise that everything was under control. While CDA and PvdA might have had differing opinions on the matter in the past, cabinet had been able to formulate a joint position.
A strained governing coalition
Still, at times the debate perplexed onlookers. Like when the prime minister said that the letter he had sent did not entail a change in the cabinet’s position – even though Mariëtte Hamer, who leads the PvdA in parliament, had called the letter “a fresh start” of the debate on the Davids report. Still, no one in the governing coalition felt the need to draw attention to these differing interpretations of reality, which did little to hide the fact that the already strained relationship between CDA and PvdA had been seriously damaged by recent events.
Balkenende responded offhandedly to Hamer’s parliamentary address, even though Hamer gloated more than she perhaps should, had she followed her party’s guidelines for Wednesday night’s debate. She underscored her displeasure with the prime-ministers’ press conference not once, but many times.
Balkenende’s response was unaffected. “Your criticism is noted. I see some matters differently, but that can happen in a debate,” he said. He proved keen to shore up his government whenever possible, stressing the fact that his cabinet had faced more divisive issues and come out in one piece. Still, the prime minister could not conceal the fact that the Iraq report had done some serious damage to his coalition, particularly since his party had so clearly been singled out for public humiliation.
Differing opinions on Iraq policy were not the only factor at work in the political mêlée of the last days. Opinion polls have shown the ruling coalition enjoys little popular support. All three governing parties would prefer to face elections later rather than sooner. The ChristenUnie hopes to continue the current coalition for another four years. The orthodox Christian party trusts it will move this government to great works yet and be able to use this successes as the centrepiece of its 2011 election campaign.
CDA's internal power struggles
Behind the scenes, the CDA is involved in an internal struggle for control of the party. If the cabinet were to fall, that would effectively put an end to Balkenende’s leadership. The prime minister has not been able to complete a single term so far, even though he is currently serving his fourth. CDA ministers Maxime Verhagen and Camiel Eurlings are waiting in the wings to succeed their current leader. Eurlings would rather bide his time some more before making a move. According to sources, that is the main reason he wants the cabinet to remain in office. Verhagen is said to be ready to break with the PvdA.
Now that the coalition has rid itself of its latest bugbear, new ones await. A trying debate on a more elaborate cabinet response to the Davids report is still to come. The CDA and PvdA will need to come to terms with each other regarding another hot foreign policy item: the possible extension of the Dutch military mission to Afghanistan. The CDA will not be particularly keen to accommodate the PvdA after the events of this week. Local elections are also scheduled soon, yet another hazard the coalition will need to overcome
The PvdA emerged victorious on Wednesday, that is for sure, but even the social democrats themselves are quick to acknowledge their victory is of the Pyrrhic kind. The PvdA will pay for this. The CDA rarely takes humiliation lightly.