Dutch Political Uncertainty Boosts Far-Right Party

Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders i i

Political uncertainty in the Netherlands could give a boost to Geert Wilders' far-right Freedom Party. Peter Dejong/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Dejong/AP
Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders

Political uncertainty in the Netherlands could give a boost to Geert Wilders' far-right Freedom Party.

Peter Dejong/AP

The Dutch coalition government collapsed last weekend over the country's commitment to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, setting the stage for early elections in June and putting politics in the Netherlands in turmoil.

The crisis unfolded as the tradition of consensus politics in the Netherlands is changing, and the Dutch are moving away from the center. The far-right Freedom Party, led by Geert Wilders, used to be seen as an extremist fringe, and now could become the biggest party in the country.

Edwin Bakker, an analyst with the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, says outgoing Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende of the Christian Democrat Party may have set some kind of Dutch record in the past eight years.

"We've never seen a prime minister with four Cabinets and four governments falling, some within a couple of months, some within a few years," Bakker said.

Balkenende will remain in office as head of a minority government until June 9 elections. His government broke apart when 12 Cabinet officers quit the coalition on Saturday after the left-leaning Labor Party refused a NATO request to keep Dutch troops in the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan.

Fears Of Isolationism

Bakker says that with yet another coalition collapse and the country pulling its 2,000 troops out of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, there is deep concern here that foreigners will see the Dutch as increasingly turning away from the world.

The "dominant picture seems to be of a country that is more worried about national or local political issues and less about the world, and doesn't want to play a role there," Bakker said.

At the same time, the country's internal politics have turned a bit nastier and more diffuse. In recent years, splinter parties have stepped up to rival the three more established ones. None has had more success than Wilders, a right-wing populist known for his fierce anti-Islam, anti-immigration rhetoric.

"If we will not stop the Islamization of our societies, at the end of the day it will cost us our dear freedom, rule of law and democracy," Wilders said. "So we should stop the Islamization. Dutchmen are tolerant, not xenophobes, but see their country changing for the worse. And they want it to be stopped."

Wilders has compared the Quran to Hitler's Mein Kampf, called for a tax on people wearing Muslim headscarves, and has vowed to close the country's borders to immigrants if he comes to power. Such talk has prompted death threats for Wilders, as well as ongoing court dates for alleged incitement and racial hatred.

'Too Soft On Immigrants'

Many Dutch call Wilders too radical, but it's also clear he has touched a nerve.

"People are a little bit fed up with the old parties, like the left-wing socialists and the center democrats," said Frederik Hiya, who was walking with his 6-year-old son in a quiet, ethnically mixed district in southern Amsterdam.

Hiya says Wilders is over the top, but he agrees with him that continued liberal immigration policies threaten Dutch culture. He says Wilders says things ordinary Dutch feel, but are afraid to say in public.

"I mean, we've been a little too soft on immigrants. I mean, we're an open society and we welcome new people, of course. But I think a lot of Dutch feel that their own identity is a little bit lost with a pretty aggressive Islam," Hiya said. "He says things that people are feeling a little bit inside, feel a little bit frightened, a little bit pushed away."

But to the roughly 5 percent of the Dutch population who adhere to Islam, Wilders' continued political success has been met with fear and disbelief.

"I was born here. I'm a Muslim by myself," said Omar Tariq, who runs an electronics shop called Euro King in a working class, largely immigrant section of The Hague. "So it is against us, it is against me also."

Tariq's parents came to the country from Pakistan. The portly 30-year-old says he actually agrees with some of Wilders' comments about integration. Immigrants to Holland, he says, need to assimilate and learn to speak Dutch.

But Tariq calls Wilders' larger message about Islam misguided and divisive.

"I been here to school. I never met racism," Tariq said. "Never somebody told me anything about my religion or my ethic background, anything. So what he's saying is also new for me. He is very dangerous. It is parting the society."

Wilders' rise has flummoxed rival politicians.

Bakker says Wilders in many ways ends up setting the agenda, and opponents don't seem to know how to respond.

"He is really taking the rest of the political system ... hostage. They don't dare to criticize him," Bakker said. "They are afraid if they mention his name, you know, 'He whose name shall not be mentioned,' like a Harry Potter kind of figure."

Wilders' party is expected to do well in upcoming local elections, and polls show he could win between 15 to 20 percent of the vote in national elections in June.

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