In a bizarre coda to an episode that seemed resolved, the Dutch government last week stepped down over Immigration and Integration Minister Rita Verdonk's treatment of controversial politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali. For Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, it was his second coalition break-up in only four years in office.
In May, "Iron Rita" Verdonk took away Hirsi Ali's passport because the Somalian-born woman had entered the country and requested asylum in 1992 under a false name, as she had openly admitted. Many considered Verdonk's handling of the dossier excessively harsh, and under pressure from her government colleagues, Verdonk ruled that Hirsi Ali was indeed entitled to carry the ancestral name she used and her passport was restored.
But Verdonk, a member like Hirsi Ali of the center-right party vvd, refused to admit to any mistakes. Fed up with Verdonk's defiant stance, junior coalition member D66, a small left-of-center party, demanded that she be forced to leave the government. When Balkenende refused to give up Verdonk, who is popular among the right wing of the electorate, D66 pulled out of the government, leaving it without a parliamentary majority.
Attending a forum at the Aspen Institute in Colorado, Hirsi Ali says, "The more this goes on, the more I think, 'Let's just all get on with life.'" She's getting on with hers she has resigned from parliament and will leave the Netherlands shortly for a fellowship at Washington's American Enterprise Institute. But that's going to be harder for those who remain. Balkenende's Christian Democrats and the vvd are now trying to cobble together a temporary minority government, Balkenende's third in four years, and hold elections in November.
The Prime Minister is hoping his austerity program of the last three years will be rewarded with an economic uptick in the coming months, which could bring back voters who polls indicate have turned away from his party. If elections are anytime soon, the big winners may turn out to be the opposition social democrats, the party Hirsi Ali first joined and later abandoned ironically, because she preferred the vvd's tougher line on integration.