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Dutch prime minister to step down

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Netherlands
Government

(CNN) -- The Dutch government is expected to resign on Friday after a coalition party withdrew its support in a row over the country's immigration minister.

Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende is expected to tender his Cabinet's resignation to Queen Beatrix Friday -- a move that will ultimately lead to new elections.

His government collapsed amid infighting on Thursday, after a failed attempt to strip former lawmaker Ayaan Hirsi Ali -- the country's best known critic of Islam -- of her citizenship.

Under the Dutch system, the queen will accept Balkenende's resignation, then meet with a special adviser and the leaders of each of the parties in parliament.

Together, they will assess whether there is support for Balkenende to continue with a minority conservative government for a short time or whether to schedule new elections as soon as possible.

In either case, elections will be held by the end of the year, rather than in May 2007 as originally scheduled, and politicians of all stripes began campaigning instantly after Balkenende announced his intention to resign Thursday.

"I support honest politics and looking to the future, doing what you promise, taking care that you make the Netherlands stronger," Balkenende told reporters as he walked off the floor.

Opposition leader Wouter Bos said Balkenende's failure to keep his Cabinet together showed a lack of leadership.

"The people are longing to show that they want a different kind of policy, and now they'll get the chance to show it," Bos said.

The libertarian VVD, the second party in Balkenende's coalition, focused on putting the blame for the breakup on the third and smallest D-66 party, which had said it could no longer work with VVD's Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk after her role in the Hirsi Ali affair.

Verdonk has been both the most popular and the most disliked figure in Balkenende's cabinet, carrying out policies that drew criticism from human rights groups but applause from Dutch who blame immigrants for social problems.

Verdonk policies included mandatory citizenship classes for immigrants, jailing asylum seekers while their case is handled and deporting illegal immigrants.

The immediate cause of the strife was the case of former lawmaker Hirsi Ali, 36, who rose to international prominence after writing the script for a film criticizing the treatment of women under Islam -- a film that prompted a young Muslim fanatic to murder the filmmaker, Theo van Gogh, in 2004.

In May, Verdonk threatened to strip Hirsi Ali of her citizenship for applying under a false name when she first arrived in the country in 1992. Hirsi Ali resigned, but after an international outcry, parliament ordered Verdonk to reconsider her decision.

On Tuesday, Verdonk reversed herself and said that Hirsi Ali could retain her citizenship after all, prompting a debate that carried on until 5:30 a.m. Thursday.

Verdonk survived a no-confidence vote, but members of D-66 said the minister had lost all credibility and it would not support any cabinet that included her.

She refused to resign, and D-66 walked out.

"We could no longer bear responsibility for the policy of this minister," said Laurens-Jan Brinkhorst, D-66 Minister of Economic Affairs.

Balkenende's Christian Democrats and the VVD had hoped to keep the coalition together at least until next year's budget is announced in September. The ruling parties are trailing in the polls behind the opposition, led by Labor, but have been recovering recently amid good economic news.

Hirsi Ali, who went into hiding for months following Van Gogh's murder, said she wanted put the affair behind her and get on with her life.

She is in the United States, where she is house-hunting for a job with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.

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