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A Culture War Deferred

The Dutch elections—much to the candidates’ surprise—are more about money than Muslims.

Jun 7, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 36 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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A Culture War Deferred

Photo Credit: Gary Locke

With his career riding on his performance in last Wednesday’s nationally televised debate, Dutch prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende was grilled by the young journalist Mariëlle Tweebeeke. She had on a fetching black silk camisole and white jacket and was asking which three of the dozen or so parties running in the national election to be held on June 9 were best able to confront the European economic crisis—in short, whom he’d be willing to form a coalition with. 

It was an important question. Balkenende’s Christian Democrats are the party of electoral ballast in the Netherlands. They don’t have a lot of ideas themselves, but they do speak for “Middle Holland.” What kind of government the Netherlands gets often depends on whether the Christian Democrats smile on the social democrats of the PvdA or the free-marketers in the VVD. Balkenende’s ability to form a coalition with either of them has kept him prime minister for the past eight years. Naturally, he was not going to answer Tweebeeke’s question. So when she pressed him, he just looked down and muttered, as if against his will: “U kijkt zo lief.” (Roughly: “You look so sweet!”) 

The groan that went up from the crowd sums up Balkenende’s predicament: He is embarrassing the public he is supposed to rule. First elected in the 2002 race that saw the murder of populist Pim Fortuyn, he has presided over four different governments that stood, in their different ways, for not much in particular. Last winter it became apparent that his PvdA coalition partners were growing restive when several members of parliament began calling for an investigation of the Netherlands’ participation in the Iraq war, one of Balkenende’s first actions. Then, in February, the PvdA refused to go along with his desire to keep Dutch troops in Afghanistan, and his government collapsed. 

And with that, it seemed, politics-as-usual would collapse, too. The anti-Muslim firebrand Geert Wilders, a big, boisterous, bizarre-looking man with a pompadour of peroxide-blond hair, had been the most popular politician in the country for several months in the winter. It appeared that his Party of Freedom (PVV) might get to lead the next government. The PvdA then appointed as its lead candidate the former Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen, credited with having held the city together in the days after the filmmaker Theo van Gogh was assassinated on its streets in 2004. The stage was set for a contest between Mister Clash-of-Civilizations on one hand and Mister Can’t-We-All-Get-Along on the other. But it hasn’t turned out that way.

Since 1994, 90 percent of Dutch respondents have told pollsters they want an aggressive assimilation policy. Problems with multiculturalism have driven the country into an almost permanent state of vigilance and soul-searching, especially after the murders of Fortuyn and van Gogh. In 2007, the Dutch princess Máxima, born in Argentina, claimed that she had tried to find out about Dutch identity but “didn’t find one.” 

Wilders, who has lived in hiding since the van Gogh killing, begs to differ. He proclaims Dutch identity with a vengeance. He speaks of the concerns of “Henk and Ingrid,” a typical couple whom he claims he uses as a focus group, a sort of Dutch equivalent of Joe the Plumber. He has attacked two former cabinet members for holding dual citizenship. He would stop immigration from Muslim countries and ban minarets and the Koran, which he describes as not a holy book but a war manual, along the lines of Mein Kampf. He made an Internet film called Fitna that urged Muslims to rip out of the Koran the pages that Western liberals found offensive. He claimed the PvdA had its headquarters in Mecca. He described Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a “total freak.” Last fall, he called for a kopvoddentaks, a shockingly rude term for a tax on headscarves that might best be translated as “rag-head levy.” Surveys by the country’s leading pollster, Maurice De Hond, showed him taking 32 seats in the 150-seat chamber. But the intervening months have not been kind to him. How come?

One PvdA politician who is surprisingly sympathetic to Wilders’s concerns had a partial explanation. “Intellectuals like the Islam debate,” he said. “The problem is that Wilders, for all his claim to represent the ordinary working man, is too essentialist, too intellectual, about Islam. He keeps talking about what the Koran says. People don’t care about that. This issue is about what white Dutch people complain about with other parents when they’re dropping off their kids at birthday parties. It’s about crime. It’s about Moroccan kids mugging old people and shouting at girls.”

Alexander Pechtold—who leads the D66 party, a sort of John Lindsay-ite tendency named after the year it was founded—emerged as Wilders’s leading antagonist at the time of his steep rise last fall. “Le Pen, Haider, Dewinter … ” Pechtold said in his office in mid-May. “Wilders’s is roughly the same kind of movement.” But one should mark a key difference. Unlike those parties, the PVV has no descent from, or connection to, the World War II-era fascist parties and repudiates pretty much all of their ideological commitments, starting with anti-Semitism and racism. Wilders worked on a farm in Israel as a young man, and the PVV member of parliament Martin Bosma, a top party strategist, describes the party’s support for Israel, where Wilders still travels often, as absolute (“It is a frontline state of jihad,” he says). Bosma keeps a picture of the Lubavitcher rebbe in his office alongside a large poster of Ronald Reagan. 

Wilders, who is not a religious man, is equally committed to the sexual liberties established under Dutch law over the past decades. One of the disorienting things about Fitna, his anti-Islamist movie, is that the last third of it is given over to a plea for gay rights. Readers of the Dutch gay newspaper Gaykrant picked his party as their second favorite in a poll last year. 

In March, the PVV ran in two local elections. It came a close second in the Hague, the country’s crime-plagued administrative capital, and won big in Almere. Almere is a strange city. Half an hour from Amsterdam, it sits on land that was “poldered” out of the IJsselmeer over the past five decades and is heavily populated by people who have fled the newly multicultural metropolis for a fresh start. Much as certain working class neighborhoods in Long Island replicated, in a rustic setting, streets in Manhattan or Brooklyn, Almere is a place where you can hear Amsterdam accents that are no longer audible in Amsterdam. Almere really went for Wilders. But, once elected, the PVV quit coalition talks after half an hour, choosing opposition over government. This made it look like a protest party that would never be willing to rule.

And that became a bigger and bigger problem as the economic woes of the European Union began to eclipse all others. The Netherlands, relatively speaking, is in excellent economic shape, with unemployment at 5 or 6 percent, a trade surplus, and budget deficits that are a fraction of those in the United States. But like its neighbor Germany, the country is most unwilling to see its frugality used to underwrite Greek people’s retirements and obsessed with keeping its own fiscal house in order. 

All parties traditionally submit their budget plans for preelection scoring to the Central Planning Bureau—a sort of Congressional Budget Office. At present there is a $39 billion structural deficit. Although the parties differ on how quickly it can be eliminated, there is broad consensus about what must be done: First, the country’s mortgage-interest tax deduction must be reformed or eliminated. Second, the country’s unimpressive and actuarially out-of-control national health service must either be reined in or get a big new infusion of state funding. Third, retirement ages need to rise, possibly to 67. The Wilders party will have none of it. It holds that the cost of welfare for immigrants is so high that curbing immigration and repatriating those improperly in the country will suffice to put the budget back into balance. The focus on the economy has damaged Wilders. 

Perhaps more surprisingly, it has damaged the PvdA’s Job Cohen just as much. In early March, with the whole of the party leadership assuming the election would be fought over immigration and cultural issues, Cohen was chosen to replace Wouter Bos, one of the European politicians most knowledgeable about economics. Finance minister in late 2008, he was praised across the political spectrum for the way he handled the financial crisis. 

Cohen, the thinking went, was a new man for a new time. He would be the Barack Obama of the Dutch election, an inspiring orator and subtle thinker who could put together a coalition of people who had not realized they were compatible, much as he had done after the van Gogh killing. “He’s not somebody who’s outspoken on very delicate issues,” said Ed van Thijn, another former Amsterdam mayor, a couple of weeks ago. “That’s his strength.” This is not to say that Cohen is naïve or mushy-minded: As state secretary for justice a decade ago, he passed the toughest Dutch immigration reform to date.

But no sooner had Cohen replaced Bos than the situation in Greece became critical. Wilders’s issues were taken off the table and Cohen’s discomfort with economic issues was made manifest. In three debates over the past ten days, he has struggled on questions of how the country’s medical-insurance system works, on how pensions are funded, and even on what the details of his party’s platform are. His larger problem is that, since Dutch mayors are appointed, not elected, he finds himself in a big electoral campaign for the first time. People still like Cohen a great deal, and he may indeed be a Barack Obama in the privacy of his office, but it is clear he is not one on the stump.

The beneficiary of this impasse is Mark Rutte of the free-market VVD party. An excellent debater with a real command of monetary policy and a willingness to call for a hard-line immigration policy, he is winning back voters not only from D-66 but also from the Wilders party. This leaves one member of the PVV fuming that the VVD’s immigration policy is “an exact copy of us.” The VVD, that is, would impose Wilders’s immigration policies, but without the unseemly appearance of enjoying it too much. 

The drawback is that it is hard to see what coalition could be formed around the VVD. A “purple” coalition with the PvdA is one possibility. Another is the “Danish model” (Rutte visited Denmark two months ago) in which a minority government of free-marketers and Christian Democrats could count on the votes of the PVV, so long as it legislates aggressively on immigration and multiculturalism.

There is one aspect of the Dutch multiparty system, though, that is likely to endure under any conceivable circumstance. “Elections lead to a government no one wants,” says the pollster De Hond, “even if you’re a member of the party in power.”

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor of The Weekly Standard.

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