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.”