- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 20, 2003

BRUSSELS, Belgium, Feb. 21 (UPI) — Belgium and Greece have taken a strong stance on Iraq (they're against war). So too have Portugal and Denmark (they're for it if Iraq does not disarm fast.) Even Nigeria, Chile and Cameroon have voiced their positions loud and clear.

So why have Austria and the Netherlands — two of the richest countries in the world and both EU members — adopted a policy of almost Trappist-like silence on the most important world issue of the day?

The answer is beguilingly simple — three months after elections in Vienna and four weeks after a national poll in The Hague, the two states are still ruled by caretaker governments in search of stable coalition partners.

In the Netherlands, coalition talks between the two largest parties — the center-left Labor Party and the center-right Christian Democrats of acting Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende — have been complicated by differences over how to disarm Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

The Labor Party, which came within a whisker of dislodging the Christian Democrats in the Jan. 22 poll, are against sending Patriot missiles to defend Turkey and are reluctant to use force to ram home U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441 on Iraq.

On the other hand, Balkenende's caretaker government has adopted a more bellicose tone toward Baghdad and been a loyal supporter of U.S. President George W. Bush's stance.

The policy divide over Iraq has essentially relegated the Netherlands, a founder member of both the European Union and NATO, to a bit part in the unfolding drama in the Gulf. Balkenende's name was conspicuously absent from the infamous letter of support for Washington sent by the leaders of five EU countries and three future members, and The Hague only allowed U.S. equipment to channel through Rotterdam port after a long and heated debate in Parliament.

In neutral Austria, where almost all the major parties are against war before U.N. weapons inspectors have finished their work, Iraq is less of a dividing issue.

But dissent about the acting government's plans to buy 18 jet fighters was one of the crucial factors in the breakdown of talks between the Greens and Conservative Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel last week.

The lack of a stable government — Schuessel has been ruling in a caretaker capacity since November elections failed to produce a clear winner — has also meant it is more difficult for Austria to make its voice heard in the increasingly noisy debate about how to make Baghdad comply with U.N. demands.

In Britain and the United States, where coalition governments are a historical oddity, the idea of parties with wildly differing policies sitting around a table for months on end attempting to thrash out a ruling program might seem somewhat surreal. But in continental European countries like Austria and the Netherlands, it is a perfectly common practice.

Schuessel had exploratory talks with both the Social Democrats and Jorg Haider's extreme right Freedom Party — the very grouping that brought down his coalition government in November — before turning to the Greens.

Now, the Conservative premier is left with little choice but to form a minority government or call the Alpine state's third elections in four years.

In the Netherlands, government formation is even more torturous and time-consuming.

After the elections, the king or queen appoints an "informatueur" (middle man) tasked with sounding out different parties on forming a government. Once the potential governing partners have agreed to work together they get down to detailed discussions on subjects ranging from prison building programs to public transport subsidies.

These coalition talks usually last two to three months, but have been known to go on for nearly seven — 208 days, to be exact.

When governments come and go as quickly as they have in the Netherlands this past year – there have been two general elections and three governing coalitions — this can mean a damagingly long time without sturdy rule.

Since leftist premier Wim Kok resigned in April last year, the country has been ruled by caretaker leaders for all but 100 days, resulting in political and economic instability in one of the world's wealthiest states.

Many politicians in Holland are becoming increasingly impatient with this political process, including the charismatic Labor Party leader Wouter Bos.

"We have not yet anything to show for our work. We cannot keep that up for much longer," he said after a month of negotiations with the Christian Democrats.

Opposition parties are even more damning in their criticism of the slow pace of the coalition talks.

"Financial setbacks are materializing in every direction, unemployment is rocketing, there is a threat of war and what do Balkenende and Bos do? Practically nothing," said Liberal chief Gerrit Zalm earlier this week.

But the ultimate losers are voters who often find themselves casting their ballots for one party, only to end up with a governing coalition composed of political groupings from opposite ends of the political spectrum.

With come-and-go leaders, fractious alliances, incongruous combinations of political groupings and endless coalition talks, is it really any wonder that voter turn-out is in decline and that the European electorate is so turned off by traditional politics?

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