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Voters in Netherlands Prepare for General Elections, Debate Role in Afghanistan

  • Henry Ridgwell

A horse-drawn carriage in Amsterdam

A horse-drawn carriage in Amsterdam

Voters in the Netherlands go to the polls next week in a general election brought on the by the collapse of their coalition government over prolonging the country's troop presence in Afghanistan. Our reporter found that public opinion on Dutch involvement in Afghanistan is mixed, with economic issues being main concern of voters.

Horse drawn carriages, people on bicycles, riverboats cruising the many canals lend to the leisurely pace to life on in Amsterdam. But these are politically turbulent times in the Netherlands.

Fifty kilometers west of the capital, in The Hague, sits the Dutch parliament. In February, the government collapsed after the two largest parties failed to agree on extending the NATO mission in Afghanistan, triggering new elections.

Many Dutch people, like this soldier's wife in the town of Zwolle, feel their country has done more than its fair share for North Atlantic alliance.

"When we talk with America, you can see they like what we're doing and we're participating so much," she said. "But sometimes I also think, 'What are we? We're just a small pinch on the map and we're doing a lot of jobs everywhere.'"

The Netherlands has nearly 2,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan. More than 20 have died carrying out their peacekeeping and reconstruction mission. And with no agreement on extending the commitment, they are set to begin pulling out in August.

Marcel de Haas, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Dutch army who is at the Clingendael Institute for International Relations, says it is money that will dictate future Dutch participation in Afghan operations.

"Nearly all parties, because of the financial crisis, are going to go for cuts on the defense budget," said Marcel de Haas. "And then we get the problem that with the current level of political-military ambitions. You can't do that anymore because already at the current budget, we can't pay for all these operations."

Outside the Dutch parliament in The Hague, the political editor of the De Volkskrant newspaper says the Netherland's role in Afghanistan has given way to domestic concerns.

"It's all national issues that are at stake - the economy, the economic crisis," he said. "The Afghan situation is hardly mentioned nowadays. The decision has been taken. In the campaign, it's a non-issue because the voters aren't very interested in it."

Although the economy might decide how most people vote, on the streets of Amsterdam, the Afghan mission continues to divide public opinion.

MAN: "It has been unpopular from the outset. Most people want the interference from the Dutch to stop as soon as possible."

WOMAN: "I think we should stay there because I think the people over there are doing a very good job, so I think they should finish this job."

MAN: "I think we should stay there. We built a lot of goodwill and now we're abandoning it. It's crazy."

Budget cuts might force the Dutch government to scale back its overseas military operations. Analyst Marcel de Haas fears that could affect relations with the country's allies.

"It will also affect our political influence internationally," he said. "We are currently invited for the G-20. I think that's going to stop. We are going to lose political influence in international fora, especially in NATO - I am convinced of this."

The Netherlands might not be alone in Europe as governments across the continent debate cuts in defense spending that could affect missions like the one in Afghanistan.

For the Dutch, analysts say, it might cost them influence in international affairs. But for many voters, it is a price they are willing to pay to ride out the global economic recession.

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