Irreconcilable differences over maintaining Dutch troops in Afghanistan beyond the August 2010 deadline led to the collapse, early morning on Saturday, of the coalition that has governed The Netherlands for the past three years. After 14 painful hours of discussion, the government, composed of conservative Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's Christian Democrat Party (CDA), Labour Party and the small, Protestant CU or United Christian Party, threw in the towel and announced its resignation.

On Saturday afternoon the Prime Minister formally submitted his government's resignation to Queen Beatrix and early elections are to be held in three months.

For several days the Christian Democrats and Labour, led by vice-Prime Minister Wouter Bos, had locked horns over prolonging the mandate of some 2,000 Dutch troops stationed in southern Afghanistan.

Following an extremely confrontational Cabinet meeting, Mr. Balkenende read out a declaration to waiting journalists at 4 a.m. on Saturday. Citing a “lack of confidence” among the coalition partners, he said the Left's insistence on the withdrawal of troops had made “any solution impossible”.

Already on Thursday, during discussions in the Dutch Parliament, Cabinet Ministers had displayed the government's disunity, prompting various opposition parties to call for its resignation.

The opposition, which is itself divided on the Afghan question, found itself joining hands in denouncing the government.

On Friday, the Cabinet was to decide whether to respond positive to a request for additional troops made by NATO's Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. In 2007, the government had agreed to end the Dutch mission in Afghanistan in 2010. The fall of the government could lead to great political instability.

Elections could be held mid-year at the earliest and talks aimed at forming a fresh coalition may take several months. The political scene is so fragmented that it would take four or five parties to form a coalition government in the 150-seat Parliament.

The present outgoing government will operate in caretaker mode until a new government is installed.

Polls show deep public hostility to extending the Dutch mission in Afghanistan and a television survey showed 76 percent of those polled have little or no confidence in the government.

Struggling in the polls — municipal elections are only two weeks away — Labour could regain some electoral support by its stance over Afghanistan.

The Freedom Party of right-wing MP Geert Wilders, which had called on the government to end the Afghan mission, could be the big winner at the next election.

Polls tip the party to either become the biggest or second biggest party, campaigning on mistrust of the government and an anti-immigration ticket.

The Dutch troop withdrawal will have limited impact on NATO's Afghanistan mission but will deliver a blow to U.S. hopes to boost international troop numbers. Most NATO members only have a symbolic presence in Afghanistan and the fact that the burden is on only a few shoulders is considered harmful to NATO. The move will leave the U.S. unhappy, since it had heightened pressure on The Netherlands in recent weeks to keep its combat troops in place.

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