The Netherlands was plunged into a fresh political crisis in the early hours of Wednesday that threatened yet another cabinet collapse following the refusal of Rita Verdonk, the hard-line immigration minister, to suspend a policy expelling asylum seekers.
Mrs Verdonk may now be forced to resign, a move which could bring down the government, even though it resigned in June and is only governing in a caretaker capacity until a new administration can be appointed.
Mark Rutte, leader of Mrs Verdonk’s liberal VVD party, described events as “unprecedented in Dutch parliamentary history”.
Cabinet is due to meet later on Wednesday in crisis session. If Mrs Verdonk quits, Mr Rutte said the VVD party would resign with her, bringing down the government in which it shares power with prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende’s Christian Democrat Alliance (CDA).
If that happens Mr Balkenende may be forced to tender his government’s resignation to Queen Beatrix – for the fourth time in less than five years – leaving the question of who governs the Netherlands unclear.
It was another row over Mrs Verdonk’s policy, in relation to her handling of the citizenship of anti-Islam campaigner Ayaan Hirsi Ali, which forced Mr Balkenende’s coalition to resign in June, leading to last month’s general election.
Talks to form a new government are likely to have been damaged by Wednesday’s developments, political commentators said. The crisis may drive a wedge between the CDA and social democrat PvdA, the parties considered most likely to serve in that administration.
But the development underscores the determination of the left-wing opposition to use a newly-established majority position in parliament to confront controversial government policy – notably in relation to immigration – head-on.
In a night of extraordinary drama in a country that has witnessed its share of recent political shocks, a majority of the 150 delegates in the Dutch parliament backed a motion of disapproval in Mrs Verdonk, tabled by PvdA.
That came after she refused to suspend the process of expelling asylum seekers whose applications for refuge had failed but who had been resident in the Netherlands since before 2001.
She vowed to re-start processing failed applications the minute the debate ended, outraging MPs who had wanted the process suspended until a new government can consider a plea for a general pardon for asylum seekers.