THE HAGUE (AFP) - – The Dutch premier tendered his government's resignation to Queen Beatrix on Saturday after a dispute over the country's Afghan military mission scuppered his ruling coalition.
"Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende this morning offered the resignations of the (12) ministers and deputy ministers of the PvdA (Labour Party) to Her Majesty the Queen," a government statement said.
The move paves the way for early elections in the Netherlands.
In a telephone conversation with Queen Beatrix, who is on vacation in Austria, the prime minister also offered the 12 cabinet positions of his own Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), the majority partner in the coalition, as well as the three held by the smaller Christian Union (CU).
In a statement later on Saturday, the royal palace said the monarch will hold consultations on Monday in The Hague with Balkenende, the leaders of his coalition partners and other key political figures.
Balkenende announced the collapse of the government in the early hours of Saturday after coalition parties failed to agree on a NATO request to extend the Netherlands' military mission in Afghanistan by a year.
"As the leader of the cabinet, I came to the conclusion that there is no fruitful path for the CDA, PvdA and Christian Union to take into the future," a dejected Balkenende said after more than 16 hours of talks failed to save his three-year-old centre-left coalition.
"For days we have seen that unity has been affected by ... statements that clash with recent cabinet decisions. These statements place a political mortgage on collegial deliberation."
Matters were brought to a head when the PvdA Labour Party withdrew from the government after insisting that the military mission in Afghanistan must end this year as planned, and that the government should reject the NATO request.
His public statements this week caused the latest in a string of rows with CDA and CU coalition partners who insisted the matter was still under discussion.
Bos, who is finance minister as well as vice-premier, said "no good reason" for an extension of the mission has been forthcoming in the coalition talks and that he hoped for speedy elections.
"Under the circumstances, the PvdA could no longer credibly form part of this cabinet," Bos argued.
This was the fourth cabinet led by Balkenende to crumble in eight years.
Parliamentary elections, scheduled for March next year, will now have to be brought forward with polls predicting Balkenende's CDA and the Labour Party to lose about seven seats and 13 seats respectively in the 150-seat assembly.
The CDA currently holds 41 seats and the PvdA 33.
"Elections are likely to be held before the summer, by June at the latest," home affairs ministry spokesman Vincent van Steen told AFP.
He said Queen Beatrix will now consult her advisers on how to proceed. CDA and CU ministers will likely take over those portfolios held by the PvdA until a new government is formed.
NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen asked the Netherlands earlier this month to take on a new training role and remain in Afghanistan until August 2011.
The request had required unanimous cabinet approval.
As the alliance reiterated Saturday its wish for a "new smaller Dutch operation after August 201O", deputy defence minister and CDA member Jack De Vries said this "depends on what the new government will decide".
"For 16 hours we tried to find a solution," added CDA foreign minister Maxime Verhagen. "I regret the fact that the will was lacking to consider all the options."
Around 1,950 Dutch troops are deployed in Afghanistan's Uruzgan province, where opium production is high and the Taliban very active, under the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.
The Dutch mission, which started in 2006 and is often hailed as an example for its developmental focus, has already been extended by two years and has cost the lives of 21 soldiers.
"Through a protracted build-up of mistrust, the cabinet was no longer governing, strife was governing," reacted Agnes Kant, leader of the main opposition Socialist Party.
"The cabinet has lost all credibility."
Populist, anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders, whose PVV party is making strong gains in the polls, said he was "delighted" over the collapse.
"The worst cabinet ever did not deserve to govern for another day," he said.