Dutch go to polls in anti-immigrant mood

Dutch go to polls in anti-immigrant mood

David Rennie, Rotterdam
November 23, 2006

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THE Netherlands’ mainstream parties were expected to re-establish their dominance at the country’s general election overnight after uniting around anti-immigration policies that would once have been unthinkable.Less than a year after being written off for dead, the Christian Democrats are set to emerge as the single largest party.Led by centre-right Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende — whose studious image and glasses have earned him the nickname Harry Potter — they are likely to gain a narrow advantage over the centre-left Social Democrats.A “grand coalition”, which could take weeks or even months to form, is the most likely outcome as the parties seek to form a new government to replace the one that collapsed in June over infighting about immigration.The creation of a new administration is expected to seal a dramatic shift to the right that five years ago would have seemed impossible amid the cosy and, frankly, dull consensus politics that had until then dominated the country’s postwar history.The Netherlands used to boast some of the dreariest politics in Europe, with power cosily parcelled out between a handful of interest groups.All that ended after the September 11 attacks, which helped catapult the populist Pim Fortuyn to national prominence with his attacks on Muslim “intolerance” and declaration that “Holland is full”.His Liveable Rotterdam party seized control of the port city in local elections in March 2002. The country was stunned when Mr Fortuyn was murdered by an animal rights activist two months later, on the eve of a general election he was expected to win easily. His murder was followed two years later by the killing of filmmaker Theo van Gogh, stabbed to death by a Muslim extremist for making an anti-Islamic film.Now, One Netherlands, a party founded by Mr Fortuyn’s political heirs from Liveable Rotterdam, is expected to win two seats at best in the 150-seat parliament. The big parties are back in charge — proof that they have absorbed the protest politics of the Fortuyn era and made them their own.Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk noisily revived discussions about a law to ban the wearing of the burqa by Muslim women, in what was seen by her critics as a transparent electoral ploy to shore up the fortunes of her own smaller centre-right party, the VVD.The proposal was welcomed by all the main parties, including the Social Democrats, effectively killing it as an election issue.Voters in Rotterdam — where nearly half the 600,000 population are immigrants — said yesterday that the old cosiness was gone forever.“The whole political scene has changed. It’s more populist now,” said Edwin Larkens, an architect. “The main parties know they have to be more outspoken and take positions on things nobody talked about before. Even the most left-wing politicians now say immigrants should learn Dutch. That means the splinter parties are not important any more.” 

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