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Dutch Political Uncertainty Boosts Far-Right Party

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Dutch Political Uncertainty Boosts Far-Right Party

Europe

Dutch Political Uncertainty Boosts Far-Right Party

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The Dutch coalition government collapsed over the weekend. The cause: its country's commitment to the NATO mission in Afghanistan. A general election is scheduled for June, but the Netherlands' political landscape is in turmoil. Its tradition of consensus politics is changing, with the Dutch moving away from the center. And now, the far-right Freedom Party, once considered on the fringe, could become the biggest party in Holland.

NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from Amsterdam.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Christian Democrat politician Jan Peter Balkenende may have set some kind of Dutch record in the last eight years.

Dr. EDWIN BAKKER (Analyst, Netherlands Institute of International Relations): We have never seen a prime minister with four Cabinets, four governments falling - some within a couple of months, some within two years.

WESTERVELT: Edwin Bakker, with the Netherlands Institute for International Relations, says with yet another coalition collapse and the country pulling out of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, there's deep concern here. Foreigners will see the Dutch as increasingly turning away from the world.

Dr. BAKKER. And now, dominant picture seems be a country that's more worried about national or local political issues and less about the world, and it doesn't want to play a role there.

WESTERVELT: At the same time, the country's internal politics has 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 the Freedom Party, led by Geert Wilders, a right-wing populist known for his fierce anti-Islam, anti-immigration rhetoric.

Mr. GEERT WILDERS (Leader, Freedom Party): If we will not stop the Islamization of our societies, that at the end of the day it will cost us our dear freedom, rule of law and democracy. 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.

WESTERVELT: Wilders has compared the Quran to Hitler's "Mein Kampf," called for levying a tax on people wearing Muslim headscarves, and has vowed to close Holland's borders to immigrants if he comes to power. Such talk has gotten Wilders death threats, as well as ongoing court dates for alleged incitement and racial hatred. Many Dutch call Wilders too radical, but it's also clear he has touched a nerve.

Mr. FREDERIK HIYA: People are a little bit fed up with the old parties, you know, like the left-wing Socialists and the center Democrats.

WESTERVELT: Frederik Hiya is walking with his 6-year-old son in a quiet, ethnically mixed district in southern Amsterdam. He says Wilders is over the top, yet he agrees with him that continued liberal immigration policies threaten Dutch culture. But he says Wilders says things ordinary Dutch feel, but are afraid to say in public.

Mr. HIYA: I mean, we've been a little bit 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. He says things that people are feeling a little bit inside, you know, that they feel a little bit frightened, a little bit pushed away. That's what I think.

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

Mr. OMAR TARIQ: I'm born here. I'm a Muslim by myself, so it is against us, against me also.

WESTERVELT: Omar Tariq runs an electronics shop, called Euro King, in a working class, largely immigrant section of The Hague. His parents came here from Pakistan. Sitting on a small, plastic stool near a space heater and sipping sweet tea, the portly, 30-year-old businessman 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.

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

WESTERVELT: Wilders' rise has flummoxed rival politicians. Analyst Edwin Bakker says Wilders, in many ways, ends up setting the agenda, and his opponents don't seem to know how to respond.

Dr. BAKKER: He's really taking the rest of the political system - it's like a hostage. You know, they don't dare to criticize him, are afraid that if you mention his name - he who should not be mentioned, like a Harry Potter kind of figure.

WESTERVELT: 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.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Amsterdam.

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