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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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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.

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