A nation split in two

24th November 2006, Comments 0 comments

It sounds like a great dance party, swing to the right, swing to the left and turn it all around. But the reality is, the Netherlands is on the verge of a political stalemate and it will take inspired leadership to bring it home safely.

Four years is a very long time in politics.

Back in May 2002, the populist LPF rode a wave of public mourning and outrage to win 26 seats following the brutal murder of its founder, the anti-immigrant political speed train called Pim Fortuyn.

But the LPF — renamed Fortuyn for the November 2006 elections — disappeared from the Dutch Parliament this week, punished by voters for years of infighting and ineptitude.

You'd be wrong, however, in thinking that an alarming swing to the far-right in the Netherlands in recent years has come and gone.

The far-right has found a new star.

Geert Wilders and his debutant Freedom Party PvdV won nine seats on an anti-Islamic policy platform on Wednesday.

Wilders — a former Liberal VVD MP who went it alone after angering party chiefs with his repeated opposition to EU accession talks with Turkey — has won hearts and minds of a public concerned by terrorism, immigration and EU integration.

He delivered a defeat to the VVD, which must be ruing it went to the polls with the softer Mark Rutte as leader rather than the tough Immigration Minister and former prison boss Rita Verdonk.

Social issues

This election campaign was not all about immigration, however. Far from it.

It was instead fought on broader themes defined simply to the public as social policies: healthcare, pensions, the economy, poverty, education etc as the nation sought to define its social conscience.

And the main battle revolved around the Christian Democrat CDA and Labour PvdA as the parties slugged it out to become the nation's largest.

CDA leader and Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende eventually won.

He was given a standing ovation at a party congress on Thursday, the day after his party won 41 seats, albeit three less than the last election in January 2003.

Crusading on a morals ticket, Balkenende was supported by the emerging economic recovery following record austerity measures and surprised the PvdA with the tenacity of his message.

In the end, he held off the challenge from the young and handsome PvdA leader, Wouter Bos, whose party won just 32 seats, down from 42.

What had promised to be a neck-and-neck race ended with the public backing Balkenende's reliability rather than risking it all on a man who forgot to bring his voting card to the polling booth.

Posed against this backdrop was the Socialist SP, which came from behind to stage a stunning electoral victory of its own to become the third largest party after the PvdA and CDA. 

The one-time Maoist splinter party has gone from strength to strength in recent elections as its charismatic leader, Jan Marijnissen, has taken it on a journey to become a social democratic mass party.

It campaigned this year on humanity: the SP was diametrically opposed to the CDA in demanding a general amnesty for the 26,000 asylum seekers who had entered the country prior to stricter immigration laws that came into force in 2001.

This issue has divided the nation (and the CDA) in recent years after VVD Minister Verdonk refused to grant a general amnesty.

While the government responded to public concerns and enforced stricter immigration laws and imposed integration classes at a national level, more and more people have become disillusioned by plans to uproot and deport (local) families who have been in the country for five years or more.

The great divide

In the end, it was an election classically fought between the left and right-wing.

Amid concern over poverty after the 2003 recession, an 'audit' of election policies by the government's macroeconomic thinktank Central Planning Bureau (CPB) revealed the SP would boost purchasing power the most (second only to the green-left GroenLinks).

And PvdA leader Bos failed to take the initiative by backing a politically strong and emphatic l

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