Witch hunt in the Netherlands

Witch hunt in the Netherlands

5th September 2008, Comments 0 comments

Settling 20-year-old scores. What did you do in the 1980s?

What did you do in the 1980s? That question has cost one Dutch member of parliament his job, and led one party to bring a motion of no-confidence in a government minister. Here in the Netherlands, the 1980s was a time of economic crisis and of social activism, particularly in the housing rights and anti-nuclear movements.Now a number of Dutch politicians are being called to account for their alleged activities, or support for activities, dating from that period.  
Geert Wilders' right-wing Freedom Party has spearheaded the accusations. MP Barry Madlener said during a recent debate the two decades that have passed don't' matter:
"Can someone who takes responsibility for these actions and, until now has not distanced herself from them and hasn't published a correction, can such a person be minister?" 

The intensity of the debate has taken many by surprise. Some have gone so far as to call it a witch hunt. At any rate, the subject has certainly struck a nerve, and set a combative tone for the start of a new parliamentary year.

The focus on 1980s activism began earlier this summer, when Green Left MP Wijnand Duyvendak announced the publication date for a new book. The press release revealed that he was involved in a burglary in 1985, during which documents were stolen from the Ministry of Economic Affairs. The documents had to do with plans for expansion of nuclear power.  
Dutch Environment Minister Jacqueline Cramer
Photo(right): Accused of activist past: Dutch Environment Minister Jacqueline Cramer

National debate
Mr Duyvendak clarified that he now rejects such methods. But his party decided the sensitivities around the topic made it impossible to continue as MP. The leader of the Green Left called for a national debate. But fellow MP Kees Vendrik says the country isn't ready: 
 former MP for GreenLeft, Wijnand Duyvendak
"We've called for a debate about the 1980s, about taking responsibility and what the appropriate limits are for activism and social protest. But such a debate would only be helpful, or even possible, if there's the space for a real debate. That space, in the 
Netherlands of today, isn't really there."
Photo (above):  Resigned: former MP for GreenLeft, Wijnand Duyvendak
                        1980s squatters riots in Amsterdam
             1980s squatters riots in Amsterdam  (photo: Rob Hameeteman)

The magazine at the centre of the controversy, Bluf!, was a mouthpiece for the squatter movement. A second baby boom, combined with education reform which made it possible for more people to pursue higher education, meant a large number of young people came to the cities in the 1980s. At the same time, a bad economy and property speculation meant there was lots of empty buildings in city centres. 
The squatting movement took off
But the violence some squatters used against police forces gave the entire movement a bad name that still resonates for some people today.
And it is not just the Green Left that has faced accusations. Environment Minister Jacqueline Cramer, from the Labour Party, may have signed an advertisement in 1986 supporting the publication of documents stolen during the same break-in. Some MPs concluded that Ms Cramer had thereby approved of violence. 
She easily survived a motion of no-confidence, brought by the Freedom Party. But the mainstream, and much larger, Conservative VVD party was far from satisfied by the minister's performance. In the meantime, the activist past of another Labour Party cabinet member has been questioned. 

Settling scores
Why are so many leftists being accused of supporting violence, two decades later? Ever since the popularity of Pim Fortuyn earlier this decade, the right wing in the Netherlands has enjoyed a new clout. The current drive to hold politicians accountable for their activists past feels like settling scores. 
As if to get out in front of what one MP called a new form of McCarthyism (the anti-communist blacklisting in the US in the 1950s), Christian Union MP Kees van der Staaij said, only half joking, that his party has a clean slate: "More and more names are coming forward of politicians with an activist past. In our caucus meeting this morning, we all looked one another deep in the eyes and came to the conclusion that not one of us are guilty of such a past, whether it was on the right or on the left."A noble attempt to stay out of the limelight. But in such an embittered atmosphere, what you did in the '80s can still come to call. 
5 September
John Tyler 
Radio Netherlands

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