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Compromise, consensus and knee-capping

The polder model is under threat. Dutch politics and society are about to be put to the test. By Hans Maarten van den Brink

On the night of 18 to 19 February, the Dutch government collapsed after sixteen hours of talks about whether the Dutch should do as NATO requested and'extend their mission in Afghanistan. When the exhausted ministers left the government building at four in the morning, they were accosted by a group of fans who were chanting two words over and over again, to the tune of a Dutch schmalz-pop ditty: Geert Wilders, Geert Wilders, Geert Wilders.

For the past two years this demagogue with his bleached, bouffant Mozart hairdo has kept Dutch politics and public debate on tenterhooks with his fight against the "Islamisation of the Netherlands". In local elections last week, his Party for Freedom (PVV) ran in just two cities: in Den Haag it came second; in Almere – the seventh largest city – Geert Wilders' party came in first. This victory was all the more remarkable because Almere has a minute Muslim population and the problems of multicultural co-existence – insufficient language skills, unemployment, youth crime – are markedly lower than the national average. The results of the elections and the related polls provide a good indication of what lies ahead for the Netherlands when it elects a new parliament on June 9. Everything points to PVV becoming one of the three major parties. Some say it will even come out on top.

Protest parties are nothing new to Dutch politics. Most decades have witnessed their version of this phenomenon, which is abetted by the electoral law. Only a coalition of three or four parties can govern the Netherlands, on the basis of compromise and consensus. In a nation which rather self-contentedly prided itself for al long time on its cultural diversity and tolerance, this was regarded as a prerequisite for social cohesion. Everyone gets a say.

The eccentric professor Pim Fortuyn was the first person to try to do away with the polder model, using the election campaign 2002 to launch his attack on the entire political system. In the eyes of this Catholic homosexual anti-monarchist ex-communist with butler, Bentley and lap dog, Dutch society was decadent, defeatist and, after years of welfare, incapable of identifying the problems on its doorstep. Despite being financed by a string of property tycoons, Fortuyn became a hero of the common man. Two days after he was murdered, his hastily founded party won an election victory. But the cabinet which was formed together with the Christian Democrats – the first one of four under Jan Peter Balkenende – imploded only months afterwards due to infighting and the incompetency of Pim Fortuyn's ministers.

Geert Wilders is determined not to make the same mistakes as his predecessor. Which is why the PVV has no traditional party structure. It is a "grouping" with Geert Wilders as its chairman. And there is really only one main issue on his party agenda: the fight against Islam, which is regurgitated in ever new and more extreme versions. According to Wilders, Islam is not a religion but a criminal, political ideology, which must be fought on all fronts – not only with arguments but also with force. Criminals of Arab descent, for example, should be kneecapped more frequently, there should be a ban on building Mosques and on wearing the hijab in public buildings. If he had things his way, the first article of the constitution would also have to change. The equality of all people in the eyes of the law would be replaced by the "dominance of Judeo-Christian and humanist culture".

While Pim Fortuyn fought the political establishment with equal amounts of gall and humour and was always ready to engage his adversaries in debate, Wilders is immune to every form of dialectic and irony. He prefers to discredit his adversaries as members of the "left-wing elite", which he regards as the source of all evil in the land. And he doesn't shy away from provocation: he called one minister mentally disabled; in parliament he described Balkenende as "the worst prime minister of the post-war era"; and he even suggested introducing a "headscarf tax". This is all combined with complaints about his inadequate personal security and appeals to the right of freedom of speech.

Since the assassination of Pim Fortuyn (by a militant animal rights activist) and of the polemicist and film maker Theo van Gogh (by an Islam fundamentalist), this has given him access to a weak spot. It also explains why traditional politicians and intellectuals have been so helpless against Wilders, from whatever side of the political fence they hail. To ignore, marginalise or trivialise him is no longer an appropriate or effective strategy. And there is a wariness about treating the enemy too roughly – "demonisation" was what Fortunyn called it – as this could be interpreted as a call to more violence. Respecting the individual's right to freedom of expression is a mantra that is being repeated ad nauseam right now, by politicians of all stripes. Except for Geert Wilders, who is convinced of the superior nature of his attitude and ideology.

But there are other reasons why it is so hard to outargue Wilders. His views do not follow the usual scheme of left and right. A self-proclaimed admirer of Ariel Sharon and Margaret Thatcher, Wilders is also taking on the world banks, the liberalisation of the job market and the rising retirement age. He wants to close borders, disputes EU jurisdictions, and believes (like the Social Democrats) that the Netherlands has done enough in Afghanistan. At the same time, he tirelessly beats a drum for universal human rights, particularly for women and homosexuals. He believes Dutch culture should be protected from foreign influence and that cultural and welfare subsides should be axed, and more state money handed out to pensioners, animals, the disabled and the police.

If you listen to Wilders you would be forgiven for thinking that the Netherlands is teetering more dangerously than other European nations on the brink of social and economic catastrophe. Although the opposite is true. In the current crisis the country is not faring too badly. Compared with the level of affluence, state debt is pretty modest, and unemployment levels are the lowest in Europe. The crime rate is dropping, immigration regulations are stricter than almost anywhere else, language courses for immigrants are obligatory and Muslim women in particular are taking advantage of educational opportunities. Research has shown that the Dutch regard their quality of life as above average and are content, even happy, at least in their private lives. So is it ennui, world-weariness, a reaction to the self-indulgent seventies and a latent fear of globalisation which drives the Dutch to vote for Wilders? It seems so. Wilders practises a form of cultural populism which causes more problems for the Netherlands than if he had proposed radical economic reform.

In a divisive election campaign such as the one Geert Wilders is fighting, compromise is regarded a priori with suspicion, so a coalition is virtually out of the question. This has taken its toll on politics in general and on the nation by extension. One of the many polls in the run-up to the imminent elections spoke volumes: trust in almost all politicians – winners and losers alike – had plummeted. Support for Balkenende, who has led four governments, has halved. Not a single candidate running for premier – whatever their party membership – was considered competent and trustworthy by more than a third of the voters. That was an historical low. And Wilders, for his part, ranked lowest in this respect.

In a surprise move on Friday March 12, the leader of the Social Democrats, Wouter Bos, announced that he would be leaving politics 'for family reasons' and gave his endorsement to Job Cohen, the current mayor of Amsterdam, as his successor. Cohen, 62, is widely seen as a statesmanly figure who will run, so he says, on a ticket of 'holding things together'. Naturally, Wilders derides this as a sign of weakness. The mayor of Amsterdam, Geert Wilders promptly pronounced, is known for drinking tea with the imams of local mosques and little else. As things stand, the coming elections will be a run-off between Wilders and Cohen, with Balkenende caught on the back foot and forced to stand aside for the time being. Dutch politics, which was never known for its unpredictability, has been a rollercoaster ride in recent years. Elections have always resulted in a coalition - but according to the polls, this is nowhere in sight. Geert Wilders, however, is preparing himself for the office of prime minister.


This article was originally published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on 12 March 2010.

Born in 1956, Hans Maarten van den Brink is a novelist, journalist and director of the Dutch Medienfonds. His novel "Over the Water" was translated into several languages and published in English in 2000.

Translation from the German: lp - let's talk european