The Dutch coalition government collapsed Saturday over irreconcilable differences on whether to extend the Netherlands' military mission in Afghanistan.
Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende announced that the second largest party in his three-party alliance is quitting, in a breakdown of trust in what had always been an uneasy partnership.
Balkenende made no mention of elections as he spoke to reporters after a 16-hour Cabinet meeting in The Hague that ended close to dawn.
However, the resignation of the Labor Party would leave his government with an unworkable majority, and political analysts said early elections appeared inevitable.
Balkenende said his Christian Democratic Alliance would continue in office together with the small Christian Union, and would "make available" Labor's cabinet seats. But he did not spell out his intentions.
The coalition, elected to a four-year term, marks its third year in office on Monday.
"Where there is no trust, it is difficult to work together. There is no road along which this cabinet to go further," Balkenende said.
The political outcome also left uncertainty over the fate of the 1,600 Dutch soldiers in the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan, where they were deployed in 2006 for a two-year stint that was extended until next August.
Labor demanded that Dutch troops leave Uruzgan as scheduled. Balkenende's Christian Democratic Alliance wanted to keep a trimmed down military presence in the restive province, where 21 soldiers have been killed.
"A plan was agreed to when our soldiers went to Afghanistan," said Labor Party leader Wouter Bos. "Our partners in the government didn't want to stick to that plan, and on the basis of their refusal we have decided to resign from this government."
NATO recently sent a letter to the government asking if it would consider staying longer — a move that the Western alliance normally would do only if it had a clear signal of agreement.
"The future of the mission of our soldiers in Afghanistan will now be in the hands of the new Cabinet," said Deputy Defense Minister Jack de Vries.
The split came after a buildup of tension over several weeks between Balkenende and Bos, the finance minister, mainly over Afghanistan and the government's earlier political support for the war in Iraq.
"This is the end of this cabinet," said Andre Rouvoet, leader of the third coalition party. He said Queen Beatrix, Holland's ceremonial head of state who will formally accept the resignations of the Labor ministers on Saturday, "will ask the remaining ministers to prepare for elections."
It was an uncomfortable alliance of convenience from the start, with the Balkenende and Bos exchanging unusually sharp barbs during the 2006 election campaign.
The acrimony surfaced again during a parliamentary debate Thursday over Afghanistan, with the two government leaders in open discord in the face of concerted attacks by the opposition parties.
Opinion polls suggest the Afghan war is deeply unpopular. Labor, which has been dropping in the polls, appeared determined to take a stand with next month's scheduled local elections in mind.
Bert Koenders, the Labor minister for overseas development aid, said his party was abiding by the government's promise when it prolonged the Afghanistan mission last time — that it would be the last extension.
"We are sticking the Cabinet decision of two years ago," he said.
An election within the next few months could see a further rise in power of the extreme anti-immigrant populist Geert Wilders, whose ranking in the polls rivals Balkenende's.
Balkenende has been prime minister since 2002, but he resigned twice before because of the country's fractious political alignments.
Associated Press Writer Bruce Mutsvairo contributed to this report.
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