'Hate buster's' party ties for top Dutch election spot

9th June 2010, Comments 0 comments

Amsterdam's ex-mayor Job Cohen, whose PvdA labour party achieved an unexpected tie for top spot with the Liberals in elections Wednesday, is a sober politician and celebrated "hate buster".

He speaks in measured tones and reacts irritably to the inflammatory one-liners uttered by his political nemesis anti-Islam leader Geert Wilders, whose PVV party made a leap to third spot.

"I stand for cooperation in a country in which everybody counts," 62-year-old Cohen said in an interview on his website, having run Amsterdam with the stated motto goal to "keep the lot together".

Born into a well-to-do family of pharmacists in Haarlem near Amsterdam on October 18, 1947, he studied law, held the rectorship at Maastricht University in the southern Netherlands, and served as deputy minister of education and science in 1993 and 1994 and deputy justice minister from 1998 to 2001.

A part-time violin player in his youth, he joined the PvdA at the age of 19.

Cohen took over as mayor of Amsterdam in 2001, becoming the first mayor in the world a few months later to officiate over a gay marriage after the passing of a law he himself had helped to write.

He was credited with preventing a feared wave of retaliatory violence after the 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a radical Islamist. Cohen's name was in a threatening letter left on the body.

"We are one in our anger and sorrow," he told a mass rally after Van Gogh's murder, appealing for "cool heads". Cohen's handling of the crisis made him one of Time magazine's 37 "European Heroes" of 2005, under the category "hate busters".

After a nine-year mayorship that included regular meetings with members of the Muslim community, Cohen quit in March this year to take over from then deputy premier Wouter Bos who withdrew the PvdA from the government in a spat over military aid to Afghanistan.

Branded by Wilders a "multi-cultural cuddler" who wastes time "drinking tea with misguided Imams", Cohen is adamant that the Netherlands belongs to all who live in it.

Himself of Jewish origin, his grandparents killed in the Nazi Holocaust which his parents survived by hiding, Cohen insisted during his maiden political campaign that: "Freedom of religion is freedom of religion for everyone.

"It does not matter where you come from, what your heritage is," he said in a debate adding that Wilders' approach was "dangerous for our society".

Colleagues describe Cohen as a man of integrity and fairness.

"He has natural authority, from a distance but also up close," Amsterdam councillor Carolien Gehrels, who worked alongside Cohen for four years, told AFP.

"He can settle an argument by lifting an eyebrow, but always leaving everyone's dignity intact."

"I have been described as an impassive observer," Cohen said of himself in a recent interview. "I find that to be a good description of me.

"But that should not be taken to mean that I have no emotion."

Cohen is married to Lidie, his student love, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and is wheelchair-bound. The couple have a son and daughter.

© 2010 AFP

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