Dutch govt crisis highlights immigration conflict

Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende submitted his government’s resignation on Friday, clearing the way for a possible election, after a simmering immigration debate spilled over into a full-scale political crisis.

Balkenende tendered the resignation to the head of state, Queen Beatrix, who must now consult political leaders to determine where to go next.

The move comes after D66, a junior coalition partner, withdrew its support for the centre-right government in a row over the handling of the citizenship of Somali-born former lawmaker Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

As well as focusing on the particular personality of Hirsi Ali, the dispute has exposed a wider immigration debate that has been simmering since the 2002 assassination of anti-immigrant leader Pim Fortuyn, whose party then entered a governing coalition.

Queen Beatrix will now consult with political leaders to determine whether new elections should be called or if Balkenende’s Christian Democrats can form a temporary minority government with its other coalition partner, the liberal VVD.

In the meantime, Balkenende will continue to lead a caretaker government.

D66, which had three of the 25 government posts, quit the coalition, which had taken power in May 2003, after failing to force Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk into resigning.

Verdonk, known for her tough position on immigration, announced in May that Hirsi Ali would have to give up her Dutch passport because she had lied on her asylum application, but this week reversed that decision.

Hirsi Ali, who came to international attention in 2004 after her friend and collaborator Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered by a Muslim extremist, has since stepped down as a lawmaker and left for the United States.

“It’s a pretext but a very symbolic one,” Dutch political commentator Paul Scheffer said. “The immigration conflict cuts through all layers of Dutch society as it does in other Western European countries. This is symptomatic of a much more profound crisis and the Hirsi Ali affair was the detonation point.”

Ethnic tensions flared again in 2004 when a young radical Muslim, born and raised in The Netherlands, murdered filmmaker Van Gogh who had directed a controversial film about the treatment of women in Islam based on a screenplay by Hirsi Ali.

Days after Fortuyn’s 2002 assassination by an animal rights activist, his List Pim Portuyn (LPF) won 26% of the votes in its first-ever showing at the general elections.

A centre-right coalition government was formed headed by Christian Democrat leader Balkenende but after a few months in government infighting within the LPF caused its collapse.

Following the 2003 elections Balkenende appointed Verdonk, a former prison warden who likes to insist “rules are rules”, as the new immigration minister to carry out tough policies to woo back voters lured away by the populists.

Although Verdonk has been heavily criticised by the left-wing opposition and human rights groups for her plans to expel about 26 000 failed asylum seekers by 2007, polls show her policies are supported by a majority of the Dutch.

Hirsi Ali, the central figure in the immigration row, herself supported the immigration policies.

In Parliament, Verdonk had already survived several difficult debates, such as her plan to send Christian and homosexual asylum seekers back to Iran, and the revelation that immigration services gave information about failed asylum seekers to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Dutch media on Friday blamed Balkenende for not being able to control the minister.

“This was a casus belli par excellence,” wrote the Christian daily Trouw, saying “worth a rift” because of the fundamental issues at stake.—Sapa-AFP

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