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Dutch Politics in disarray

13. marts 2010 - Artikel - af Arthur Legger

Cabinet Clashes; Wilders Catapulted; Parties Polarized; Election June 9; Crisis Continues

At half past three in the "small tower" of the Het Catshuis in The Hague on the very cold Saturday morning of February 20, after 16 hours of non-stop negotiation and one decent meal (Indonesian rijsttafel), the Dutch Cabinet finally fell. Pressured by a vindictive and personal hatred between Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende (CDA) and Minister of Finance Wouter Bos (PvdA); ambivalence over the Dutch military presence in Afghanistan and its province Oruzgan; the economic crisis; the upcoming municipal elections on March 3 (with polls predicting the pulverization of Cabinet’s parties); and Geert Wilders’ incessant critique and challenging pace, the Cabinet’s leading parties of Social Democrats (PvdA) and Christian Democrats (CDA) began falling apart. The demise of the government started on February 4 –the day after the Amsterdam Court decided to prosecute Geert Wilders on all charges (see: Dutch Justice). 

Two weeks of Machiavellian power politics followed. The former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s Secretary General, was misinformed, misguided and misused by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Maxim Verhagen (CDA), in order to outmanoeuvre Wouter Bos and to cow the Social Democrats. Yet, fearing the coming local elections and the sentiment amongst its voters, the PvdA faction decided not to give in to CDA’s demands, regardless of the costs and international critique (NRC Handelsblad, 20/2/2010) (De Volkskrant, 22/2/2010). Though they had been forced to stick together in order to withstand Wilders’ whirlwind, Jan-Peter Balkenende, heading his fourth Cabinet, and Wouter Bos were unable to stand each others presence for another day let alone another four months. The period it would take to come up with the winning agenda to tackle the crisis and to see Wilders proven guilty by the Amsterdam Court. “I’ll hang out the flag!” Wilders immediately responded, followed by: “the Party For Freedom will win the coming elections! We’re ready!” (Het Parool, 20/2/2010).

Heading for victory

Now, on Monday evening on March 8, five days after the local elections and three months before the general elections on June 9, much had become clear. Wilders' prediction may be correct: his party leads with 27 seats in the polls . Also, the PvdA's victory over the CDA in the Cabinet proved Pyrrhic in the local elections of March 3. Sure, the PvdA’s loss wasn’t as huge as feared, people applauded their stubbornness, but still they faced an annihilating 40% decrease in seats. The newcomer Party For Freedom (PVV), campaigning for a ban on the hijab or headscarf, city commando’s, banishing criminal Muslims, a stop to the building of mosques, a Muslim immigration stop, law and order and lower taxes, did outstrip all other parties in Almere (5th city in the Netherlands) and came in second by a mere 4% after the PvdA in The Hague, the seat of Government and Crown.

Because of Wilders early decision in December to run merely in those two towns (possibly due to a lack of good candidates, but possibly also to keep his party’s marketing in firm grip), the ruling parties, and particularly the Social Democrats, thought they would go unscathed. The opposite happened. In many prestigious cities the Social Democrats lost their traditional majority. The same went for the Christian Democrats, who only held in the Bible Belt and the Southern Provinces, suffering an unprecedented loss. The highbrow Democrats (D66) gained in university towns such as Amsterdam, Leiden and Delft with an anti-Wilders and pro-Turkey agenda. Yet the party that gained most in a great many smaller towns and cities was the Liberal Party (VVD). Taking over much of Wilders’ criticism of Islamisation, mass immigration and lack of integration, they made a forceful comeback after heavy losses over the past decade.

Finally, the old local Rotterdam party of Pim Fortuyn, "Leefbaar Rotterdam" led by Marco Pastors, managed to tie the Social Democrats and, hence, will once more try to pursue its policy of restricting Muslim immigration.

Clearly, right-wing parties such as the VVD profited, but merely because of Wilders absence in all municipalities except Almere and The Hague – precisely those cities in which the PVV crushed traditional parties, including the VVD. In short, not only did Dutch politics take a sharp turn to the right , which was duly noted by most European newspapers, but in all polls Wilders’ PVV now takes top position. Even in the politically correct De Volkskrant he’s called a candidate to become the next Prime Minister

Political polarisation

The unrelenting challenge of Wilders’ anti-Islam and anti mass-immigration zeal causes a polarisation in Dutch politics, which has materialized in the local elections and will pulverise Dutch politics even further on June 9. As a phenomenon it echoes the meteoric rise of Pim Fortuyn, who was assassinated two weeks before the elections of May 2002. Subsequently, the rug of political correctness was quickly put back into place, to be lifted again by Wilders in 2006. So, although the economic crisis gnaws away at the foundation of the Netherlands and necessitates a 35 billion Euro annual cutback, starting yesterday, no party has gone for “it’s the economy, stupid”. On the contrary, on every news show, even on Social Democrat biased ones such as Pouw & Witteman, Nova, Network and Eén Vandaag, Wilders' critique of Islam is central.

After the March 1 election debate on Eén Vandaag, journalists, politicians and viewers voted Wilders the absolute winner. Not because he was the most eloquent, but because he was able to force all other political leaders, Wouter Bos (PvdA), Mark Rutte (VVD), Agnes Kant (SP), Alexander Pechtold (D66) and Laurens van Geel (CDA) to address his agenda (De Volkskrant, 2/3/2010). When finally getting the opportunity to criticize Wilders outside Parliament in front of millions of viewers, Agnes Kant and Alexander Pechtold declared Geert Wilders “a threat to our society”. Kant chided: “I dare state that Wilders is a threat to our society, he’s labelling and abusing Muslims as scapegoats for our problems. History has shown that such an agenda hides a deadly danger” (Het Parool, 2/3/2010).

Wouter Bos politely distanced himself from Kant’s shrill statements (which forced her to step down as leader of the Socialist Party (SP) the following day) yet took the opportunity to underline PvdA’s position of exclusion towards PVV and urged others to do the same. To Bos the rise of Wilders is a gift from God: sure, as a minister of finance he had acted poorly causing a treasury deficit of 148 billion Euro in one year, which increases by 100 million Euro per day, but at least he’s got morality on his side. Without him, one understands, fascism will start tomorrow. Formally, a cordon sanitaire around Wilders was not declared, but the effect was the same. The next day Jan-Peter Balkenende followed suit, stating that “the CDA does exclude the PVV from a coalition of which I would like to be the prime minister again” (EO network news show De Moraalridders ("The Self-righteous Knights"); Het Parool, 3/3/2010).

An enemy of the Jews?

The stance of Balkenende and his CDA, a ruling party geared to maintain power no matter what and, hence, not supposed to exclude anyone, isolates Wilders even more. Not only is he accused of “taking hostage a city like Almere, only to abuse it for his national campaign” (Adri Duivesteijn, alderman of Almere in De Volkskrant, 2/3/2010), but Wilders is also cast aside by those who did seem to be his best friends, the Dutch Jewish population.

Four days before the fall of the Cabinet, the highly prestigious and influential Menasseh Ben Israel Institute for Jewish Social Scientific and Culture Historical Studies in Amsterdam presented a seminar, to which I was invited, called The Jewish Flirt of Geert Wilders: A discussion on philosemitism and islamophobia. The panel included Frank van Vree (professor of Journalism and Culture at the University of Amsterdam), Harm Ede Botje (editor of the magazine Vrij Nederland and writer of a series of articles on Wilders’ vacations to Israel as a youth), Evelien Gans (professor of Contemporary Jewry at the University of Amsterdam and researcher at the National Institute of War Documentation) and Daniel Schwammenthal (editorial writer at the Wall Street Journal).

Much to Schwammenthal’s astonishment, the evening presented a Wilders bashing, ridiculing his proclaimed love for Israel and comparing his Islam critique with Nazi propaganda. The panel's conclusion was with such a self-proclaimed friend one doesn’t need an enemy, It made no difference that people in the audience pointed out that Frank van Vree had deliberately misquoted Wilders to prove his arguments. Van Vree accused Wilders of having said that “women who’re wearing a headscarf are garbage. And," van Vree concluded, "we all know what we do with garbage – it’s burned.” Members of the audience pointed out that Wilders had never said that, but had stated that “women who’re wearing a headscarf are polluting the public sphere.” Van Vree's reaction was unsettling: “All right, I misquoted, so what, he means the same.” Schwammenthal concluded that in the face of such deliberate misinformation, Wilders calls for freedom of speech, Islam critique and support of Israel would be in vain. “What’s that to us,” Evelien Gans responded, “we’re not Zionists. Martin Bosma (MP for the PVV) shows himself to be a subconscious anti-Semite and Geert Wilders has sided with the Jewish fundamentalists merely to support his anti-Islam agenda. ... All of this echoes the prelude to another Holocaust. … I strongly advise against a Jewish vote for Wilders.”

Wilders undeterred

Surprisingly, the mounting hostility and his further isolation do not seem to bother Wilders or his supporters one bit.

Being present at both PVV’s gatherings on Thursday evening, February 25 in Almere and Friday evening, February 26 in The Hague I was baffled by the awesome security and police presence. The 200 screened guests waited politely outside in the cold and drizzle for 45 minutes to get their body check and scanning, and acted as if this was absolutely normal. Inside, twenty PVV aldermen for Almere and – the next day – The Hague were lined up carrying flower bouquets. The eight PVV MP’s, Fleur Agema, Martin Bosma, Raymond de Roon, Hero Brinkman, Dion Graus, Teun van Dijck, Sietse Fritsma and Richard de Mos, presented themselves, alongside EU parliamentarian Barry Madlener, while Geert Wilders functioned as something like a tv host, managing the audience. “I smell our victory in the air,” he exclaimed, “we will check those Moroccan criminals and street terrorists, and evict them if necessary. … I’ve got news for you: we will impose a ban on the headscarf in The Hague and Almere. A ban on the headscarf in all governmental buildings and subsidized institutions. … We will put a stop to further Muslim immigration. We will stop further building of mosques. We will stop further Islamisation. … Our leader in Almere, Raymond de Roon [MP for the PVV on Justice] will guarantee law and order. He will appoint street commandos and cut taxes. We will put a halt to all those socialist and multi-culturalist subsidies for nonsense such as Moroccan macramé and Turkish tea. We will act!” (see also De Volkskrant, 26/2/2010; and the PVV website).

In The Hague the evening developed along a similar storyline, with Sietse Fritsma stating that “a ban on the headscarf in the public sphere is our core issue. To fight back the incessant Islamisation of our neighbourhoods and to banish those Moroccan street terrorists if need be. Those criminal Moroccans are heading all crime statistics, they fill up our prisons. There’s a cause to that effect: the ideology of Islam. … We will storm the Ice Palace [nickname for The Hague’s City Hall] and change politics.”

Eye of the Tiger

Clearly, some of this was mere election rhetoric on the beat of election music (The Eye of the Tiger – the theme song of Rocky) and recognized as such by most supporters present. They cheered, but were not euphoric. Mostly they resembled those polite people drinking coffee or Heineken at the meetings of the Liberal Party. Still, the anti-Islam and anti-immigration core tenets of the PVV proved to be massively victorious and will pull even more voters in on June 9. “After our win in Almere and The Hague we will take the Netherlands,” Wilders cheered. “Our party has number 5 in the voting booth. That will be our winning number. We will reconquer Holland. The elite of the Left still believes in all that multi-culti crap, hugging of criminals, development aid, the European superstate and higher taxes. But the rest of the Dutch think quite the opposite” (De Volkskrant, 4/3/2010).

Yet, even though Wilders’ PVV might win the elections with 27 seats, carrying 23% of the Dutch voters, he still has to cooperate with other parties. The Dutch Second Chamber counts 150 seats so a majority starts at 76.  The same need for coalition goes for Almere and The Hague. In that regard the cry of victory which Sietse Fritsma let out on election night, “We’re gonna drive them crazy, again and again, drive them crazy in City Hall!" won’t help to form a workable council). The same goes for the desired ban on the headscarf. Not only journalists were quick to point out the impracticability of the proposal in regard to Dutch and EU legislation: in protest many Dutch women and men went voting wearing a headscarf; and what to do if the headscarf becomes a fashion statement as well? (Het Parool, 1/3/2010).

Troubling questions

More questions can be raised. Not only will the PVV’s proposal to ban the Koran (like Mein Kampf is banned in the Netherlands) prevent any government coalition from being formed, the sheer lack of qualified candidates is equally challenging. Raymond van Roon will keep his seat in Parliament and takes a seat in Almere. Sietse Fritsma stays in Parliament and takes a seat in The Hague. The same goes for Richard de Mos. And Geert Wilders himself. Both functions are Herculean on their own. What will happen if Wilders has to fill posts in a Cabinet? Or seats in the Provincial Council? The First Chamber of Parliament? The number of eligible candidates is worryingly small. The reason for this is very worrying in itself: the Party For Freedom has only one member: Geert Wilders. Sure, approximately a hundred volunteers helped out before the election. But there’s no party membership, no party backbone, no structure, no apparatus. There are nine members of Parliament, five members of the EU Parliament, fourteen aldermen in Almere and The Hague, a dozen assistants, and that’s it. It proves enough to win the elections if one has the stamina Wilders has shown. But it’s not enough to run a country.

The PVV doesn’t need to form a Cabinet. Wilders might follow the example of the Danish People’s Party and support a minority Cabinet. Pia Kjaersgaard, the Danish People’s Party’s leader, has managed since 2001 to gain control of much of Danish legislation, particularly in regard to immigration, without carrying the burden of Cabinet responsibility. Wilders has stated several times that Kjaersgaard’s example offers a strategic escape route if everything else fails, and Kjaersgaard has advised him accordingly (Arthur Legger, “Interview met Pia Kjaersgaard”, HP/De Tijd, 19/2/2010). Or, Wilders has to go for another four years in the opposition to sweat out a cordon sanitaire. Whatever he does, he has to start opening up the PVV to membership fast. If Wilders is convicted after a Cabinet is formed, his entire party is convicted with him because he’s the only member. According to Henryk Broder, who writes for Der Spiegel, Wilders' lawyer, maître Bram Moszkowicz, thinks that a conviction of Wilders is a near certainty. He and Wilders are preparing for years of appeal. A devastating thought if you’re supposed to fence off opponents in the Cabinet, Parliament and City Hall.

Completely confident

Filming for our documentary The Wilders’ Trial, I attended the local election night of the PVV in The Hague. Together with my colleague I interviewed many PVV MPs, EU parliamentarians, PVV aldermen, supporters and candidates. None of them expressed any doubts in regard to the tenets of the party, the build up of the party or the positive outcome of the trial. All of them praised the impartiality of the Dutch courts. None of them thought that a major PVV victory on June 9 would influence the decision of the four Amsterdam judges.

The trust and optimism of the PVV politicians and supporters echoed the confidence Geert Wilders expressed on Saturday morning, February 27 when I talked to him for 30 minutes in his office in Parliament. Flanked by Fleur Agema and Barry Madlener and after only a couple of hours sleep because of the PVV meeting the evening before, he was ready for his usual ten hours of interviewing candidates, as he has been doing nearly every Saturday for the past year. Wilders beamed with complete confidence and conviction in the correctness of his political programme.

And why shouldn`t he. It’s election time and he holds a winning streak. Still, his ever-stricter position on Islam (the headscarf-issue) forces a party such as the PvdA (a powerhouse still) to cry for polarization even more. One of the successes of Wilders as a whistleblower has been that even the Social Democrats did start to take the challenge of mass immigration seriously. All of this has been cast aside during the past few days. “We’re now officially the Party of Immigrants,” a few PvdA aldermen bitterly complained in the city of Helmond. The joke is as follows: PvdA stands for "Partij van de Arbeid" –The Labour Party; yet, more often than not ‘Arbeid’ is replaced by ‘Allochtoon’, the Dutch word for a non-Western immigrant. Because of Wilders the PvdA has now showed it’s true face as the "Partij van de Allochtonen’.     

Funny and true as this might be (over the past 20 years, the PvdA has in fact created and catered its own constituency of non-Western immigrants), it doesn’t solve a thing. For fear of losing the Muslim vote, Wouter Bos immediately stopped all critique and re-thinking of the party's multicultural ideology, thereby suddenly positioning the realistic Dutch Moroccan Achmed Marcouch (elected as Amsterdam PvdA councilmember) on the political right (Het Parool, 5/3/2010).

A people's party?

Wouter Bos' tactics did pay off. The Muslim immigrant vote saved the PvdA . But at the same time tactics such as these (D66 and Green Left did the same) handed back the orthodox and self-proclaimed leaders of ‘the Dutch Moroccan community’ their positions and platforms. To the secular, hard-working and tax-paying Dutch Moroccan who is worried about the orthodox leanings of his wife and his estranged sons aged 15 and 17 terrorizing the streets of Culemborg, and who merely wants to lead a normal life, this is a serious problem. Which party will take him seriously as a secular citizen and not offend him as a Moroccan? The PVV, carrying the banner “Party for Freedom” ought to provide him shelter, ought to offer him a structured bulwark with a backbone of members against the increasing challenges of barbarism.

Yet Wilders’ rigidity and severity do win over many, but alienate more. His focus has been solely on campaigning, harder and harder, losing sight of the golden opportunity to win over the hearts and minds of the integrated middle class of Moroccan immigrants, and, hence, missing the opportunity of lifting his Partij Van de Vrijheid to the level of a Partij Voor het Volk (‘Party For the People’). According to Wilders, “the real fight is between me and Wouter Bos, between the PVV and the PvdA” (Elsevier, 9/3/2010).

But winning an election is only half the work. An old Dutch proverb states that “the formation begins before the election starts”. It’s how you treat your opponents that makes victory last and take effect. At least that is something to be learned from the Christian Democrats. They have been at the centre of power for one hundred years. To be excluded by them beforehand ought to be a wake-up call not to be dismissed.

Postscript, Friday, March 12, 2010

Today at noon, Wouter Bos, leader of the PvdA, decided to leave politics. His successor will be Job Cohen, mayor of Amsterdam. The reason Bos gave for his stepping down is that he wants to spend time with his wife and children. Cohen, much more so than Bos, stands for old-school multi-cultural and appeasing Social Democratic politics. The day after Mohamed Bouyeri slaughtered Theo van Gogh in 2004, Job Cohen didn’t go to pay his respect to Van Gogh’s relatives but went tea drinking in a mosque.

Cohen is the author of Binden ("To Bind", 2009), a book on “holding together, uniting city and society, no matter what” – the strategic route which the PvdA (the Social Democrats) have very recently re-discovered and found to be lucrative. Due to the current intense polarisation of Dutch society, including an unprecedented re-count of the votes in Rotterdam after allegations of fraud, it appears reasonable for the Social Democrats to select Cohen as the man who can stand up to Wilders.

Cohen's promotion to party leader is good news for Geert Wilders: “Wouter Bos goes down too easily. … Cohen merely means a return to the multi-culti hugging nineties. … This hardly promises a real fight.”

It may also become a headache for Wilders' party. On February 25 in Almere, Martin Bosma, in his function as secretary of the PVV, was asked by an enthusiastic crowd how he would respond after hearing the news that the PVV had won the elections on June 9. “I would be in despair!” Bosma answered with a rare slip of the tongue. “To manage nine colleagues is a tough job already, but what to do when there are 27 or 30? No, sometimes I wake up at night, sweating, and thinking: a touch less successful might be better.”

Arthur Legger
Senior International Reporter

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