||Last February a new Dutch coalition government under Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende was inaugurated. It was the fourth time in less than five years that the uncharismatic Christian-Democrat party leader made his way to the royal palace to present a diverse team of ministers tasked with charting politically unstable waters.
In presenting 'Balkenende IV', he was forced to work with a mandate handed to him by an electorate that has suffered through a period of unease and disruption. And as rapturous and challenging the changes have been for the Dutch themselves, foreign media have equally stumbled to label the developments in that stable, liberal and prosperous haven of tranquility ever since three political icons disappeared from the scene in a highly unusual way. Pim Fortuyn, the gay professor turned conservative politician was fatally shot by an animal rights activist, outspoken moviemaker Theo van Gogh was killed by a gun and knife wielding jihadist and Somali immigrant and conservative-liberal parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali was more or less forced to pack up and set sail for a better and presumably safer life at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
The Fortuyn Insurgency
The usual introduction in the foreign press commenting on these events was the often obligatory rehash of Amsterdam's red light district and the Dutch tolerant attitudes to drugs, crime, euthanasia and immigration followed by a brief explanation that the nation had been rudely awoken from its self-induced slumber and in response to the political violence taken a decided move to the right. Indeed, Pim Fortuyn's platform of immigration-skepticism and further rollbacks in the public sector while urging that the business world should recapture the spirit of the 17th century Dutch Golden Age was on its face a right-of-center wishlist. But the gay professor was in all respects a child of the 1960s: left-leaning with deep socially liberal instincts. His call to reinvigorate free markets, return to law-and-order and dust off an outdated concept like nationalism in essence was nothing less than a serious attempt to salvage and protect the fruits of freedom and prosperity that the Dutch had come to take for granted ever since that post-war decade of economic growth and liberalization. Much of his agenda came from direct personal experience: not only was he frustrated at the way in which politically correct left wing intellectuals and unions had taken over universities, Fortuyn himself was shocked to experience how immigrant Muslim youths would harass the patrons of gay bars in his hometown of Rotterdam.
Yet beyond economics, immigration and gay issues, Fortuyn primarily rebelled against the vested and at times arrogant and complacent political order which had - from left to right - shunned him as a potential politician, or as he himself saw it, as a Prime-Minister-in-waiting. The insurgency he unleashed therefore had as much appeal on the right - an increasingly concerned middle class, disgruntled entrepreneurs - as it had on the left - lower income families in immigrant neighborhoods, those who felt disenfranchised - and he was thus able to draw a cross-section of Dutch society into his increasingly popular movement.
A mere eight days after his violent death and the subsequent election, it was Balkenende who had to turn to the ragtag of freshly elected Fortuynist parliamentarians to ensure that his right-of-center coalition consisting of Christian-Democrats, the perennial centrist Dutch party, and the free-market liberal party (the VVD) could chart a new direction for the Dutch. The project lasted months only and the painful absence of the man who would "manage by speech" saw to it that the Fortuynists were surgically removed from the new governing team. The price for that however was another election in early 2003 which gave Balkenende a new opportunity to form a coalition government.
Yet, the electorate handed him a less than clear mandate and after the usual ritual dance with Labour which had regained its pre-Fortuyn strengths, Balkenende turned again to the VVD. In doing so he was forced to rely on the support of the small left-liberal Democrats '66, a party most often associated with intellectual tendencies, constitutional renewal and the sympathy it enjoys in royal circles. It made governing from the right a much trickier proposition and Balkenende's second cabinet would be tested to the extreme in staying afloat.
Theo van Gogh's Murder
While successfully navigating the fiscal minefield, even managing a military adventure in southern Iraq's Al-Muthanna province as well as ensuring a Dutch military contribution to Afghanistan, in November 2004 the coalition was asked to undergo its most severe test. The murder of Theo van Gogh on an Amsterdam street unleashed exactly what many had feared after the Fortuyn killing: the outburst of the simmering tensions between the native Dutch and immigrant Muslims of Moroccan and Turkish descent. What didn't help was that the Balkenende team was hardly unified in dealing with the sudden crisis. While the Vice-Premier and VVD-leader Gerrit Zalm declared that jihad had come to the Dutch streets, cooler heads sought to quell the unrest by offering the hand of reconciliation to the Muslim community. Amid a few torched mosques it was seen by some as a sensible move to have Queen Beatrix visit an immigrant youth center, however others were deeply perplexed by the one sidedness of that gesture and many to this day still lament the royal absence at Van Gogh's funeral. It was telling that the leader of the progressive and republican Green Left called for the Queen 'to unify' the nation, something that she in the end - no doubt acting on Balkenende's advice - declined to do.
Inexperience and doubt prevailed in the government's attempts to bring stability back after Van Gogh's killing. Nowhere was that more evident than in handling the situation of the VVD parliamentarian whose name was on the blood drenched note pinned on Van Gogh's chest. Within moments after the killing a heavily armed security detail moved Ayaan Hirsi Ali to a secure location, but as we can now read in her recently released biography, Balkenende's Interior and Justice Ministers were quite inept at finding the best location. Hirsi Ali was moved from military bases to apartments to hotels, a journey that also included two trips to the Northeastern US and an odd excursion into Germany. Some have wondered if the strange ways in which Hirsi Ali was secured, combined with barring her from internet and cell phone access was not really designed to neutralize her politically and ensure that an already unstable situation would not accelerate into chaos. Hirsi Ali it should be noted is known for many virtues, but diplomatic and politically sensitive commentary is not one of them and if Balkenende wanted to accomplish anything in the aftermath of the murder it was calm.
So if the Balkenende team was somewhat damaged in the immediate aftermath of the Van Gogh murder, it had now become necessary for them to channel the anti-immigration sentiments into an acceptable and above all coherent set of policies that would follow a hard-line approach without alienating a now embattled Muslim populace. That task found a more than willing taker in Immigration and Integration Minister "Iron" Rita Verdonk, like Hirsi Ali member of the socially liberal but otherwise conservative VVD, and as would become clear over time someone who considered herself as the natural political heir to Fortuyn's populist legacy. From her insistence to shake hands with an imam who refused her cordial gesture to the draconian measures used to expel illegal immigrants, Verdonk became a highly recognized feature in Dutch and in international media.
Popular though it all was; the deportation of Taida Pasic, a Kosovar girl who was forced to pack her bags only months shy of her high school final exams revealed the first rifts in the anti-immigrant sentiments. The moderate and more centrist parts of the Dutch right started to balk at policies that basically ignored an amnesty for all illegal immigrants that even Fortuyn had proposed prior to his death. It appeared that the raw emotions over the Van Gogh and Fortuyn killings had started to subside and that the battered politically correct camp saw an opening to re-establish its credentials.
Hirsi Ali's Dismissal
In the spring of 2006 the fragile political situation - more than once had the Democrats '66 threatened to pull their political support for the coalition - entered an unprecedented maelstrom. All it took was a TV-documentary that explored the factual correctness of some of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's statements about her past, and in particular the claims she had used to get refugee status in The Netherlands in the early nineties. "Saint Ayaan" was dubbed a political hit job and if indeed it had been the intention of the makers to affect Hirsi Ali's career and as a result the precarious balance of power under Balkenende, then they got what they ordered, in spades.
The core issue, whether Hirsi Ali's youthful lies would invalidate her citizenship, fell right on the doorstep of Rita Verdonk who happened to be the frontrunner in a leadership in her own - and Hirsi Ali's - VVD party. She was actively campaigning on her ability to be neither left nor right, but as the Dutch say "straight through sea". In other words Iron Rita had to be seen to deliver on her record and remain firm in even the most difficult circumstances and she wasted no time - even Balkenende was mysteriously left in the dark - to send a letter to Hirsi Ali essentially stripping her of her citizenship. It was all the latter needed to accelerate - a judge had already forced her out of her apartment as a result of neighbors suing the flat's owner over excessive security measures - her plans to resign from parliament, leave The Netherlands and take up residency in the United States. Verdonk had not only delivered on her record, she had eliminated someone who was a tad too controversial and a little too un-Dutch for a party that she wanted to lead in the next general election.
Of course, an enraged Balkenende had no option but to force Verdonk to work out a reasonable compromise through which Hirsi Ali could retain her citizenship. If not, his tenuous hold on power would suffer considerably as public sentiment had now decisively turned against what was perceived to be the heartless way in which his government ran the immigration file. It was evident that both Balkenende and Verdonk had been damaged politically. The right's dream of having their own Iron Lady was shattered and the VVD picked a moderate as its leader while Balkenende's second coalition government fell after the Democrats'66 argued that the Hirsi Ali affair had made it impossible to lend continued support to this increasingly unpopular coalition.
So, an unfazed Balkenende cobbled together an interim coalition government - his third - that would take care of business until the November elections in 2006. Despite the many calls that the Dutch had moved to the right, consecutive polls throughout Balkenende's four years in power years revealed a strong preference to turn back to the left flank and moderate some of the more drastic policies that had emanated from The Hague since that fateful year in which Fortuyn was killed. One issue that had also made life for Balkenende politically difficult was the highly publicized defeat of the draft European Constitution at the hands of an angry electorate. Was this electoral verdict a result of anti-establishment, populist sentiments? Or was right-wing isolationism coming to the surface? Or possibly, was it fear of a new and changing world that could equally be found on the left side of the Dutch political scene?
The Left Regroups, The Right Fizzles
The progressive corner in Dutch politics is a crowded field. The largest party is the centrist Labour Party which under the young and telegenic former Royal Dutch/Shell executive Wouter Bos thought to capture a sort of Blairite sentiment, though maybe a bit too long after the fact. Not the easiest of tasks as two fringe movements were offering viable alternatives for those wanting to turn left but who were uncomfortable with the steady rightward and realistic shift that Labour appeared to represent. The Green Left party under an increasingly popular Femke Halsema - she who had called for the Queen to intervene after Van Gogh was murdered - had positioned itself as the credible option for the environmentally and socially conscientious Dutch voters while the Marxist roots of the Socialist Party under Jan Marijnissen appeared to be plugging into the populist sentiments. Marijnissen, one of the most ardent campaigners against the EU constitution, knew all too well that discontent was evenly distributed among voters on the left and right and carefully stayed away from toxic issues such as immigration. As a result he was able to capture that segment of the population that was intimidated by globalization and broad social change. He was in effect fishing in Fortuyn's pond.
Still, the accepted wisdom was that in the aftermath of Van Gogh and Fortuyn there was "space on the right". And as the traditional right, the VVD, was slowly collapsing under the fraternal struggle between hardline Verdonk and moderate frontman Mark Rutte, smaller parties appeared on the VVD's right flank. Anti-immigration populist Geert Wilders had staked his platform almost entirely on seeking to curb anything that reeked of Islam, while the remnants of Fortuyn's party tried to offer an anti-immigration and law and order message combined with a friendly appeal to the increasingly graying Dutch electorate. The only viable star on the right was Fortuyn's former deputy and business associate, Marco Pastors. With his 'One Netherlands' party he was expected to offer an attractive mix of socially liberal policies, fiscal moderation and a tough stance on immigration and foreign policy. To Pastors' credit, he had actually delivered on this sort of platform as an executive city councilor in the nation's most multicultural city, Rotterdam.
Yet, when the general election campaign got underway in late 2006, it became clear soon that voters weren't all that interested to occupy that vacant slot on the right. The idea that banking on an anti-immigration platform would deliver some sort of Van Gogh dividend was deeply mistaken. While Wilders and his Party of Freedom did remarkably well, the VVD deconstructed, the Fortuyn remnants disappeared and Pastors' move to inherit his old master's mantle failed in its entirety. On the left the struggle was equally remarkable as Labour - initially favored to become the largest party - appeared to be plagued by many left wing voters opting for Marijnissen's Socialists while its more centrist supporters had decided that a move to Balkenende might be a far safer bet. The reason for that was simple: Labour's Bos had bravely hinted at old age pension reforms as well as a re-examination of the mortgage rate deductibility, two issues that the Dutch would need to address in due course. Of course they are precisely the ones that would alienate the house-owning and pension-expecting middle classes. However commendable the stance to reform these overly generous entitlements; it was lethal stuff at the ballot box. Balkenende had benefited from Bos's honesty by doing what he did best: keeping quiet by focusing on far less explosive issues.
So the traditional right and left suffered in the November election, and the choice to opt for a more radical approach on either side was won decisively by the Socialist Party. Despite his very mixed record as a leader and a campaign where real issues were managed out of existence, Balkenende's party came out on top, but more as a winner by default than as a positive choice. The real shifts occurred on the right which splintered and was sure to be locked out of power. On the other side the Socialists had not only embarrassed Labour, in size they had managed to surpass the VVD as the third largest party. 'Space on the right' had proven to be a truly elusive concept and as analysts pointed out the Dutch electorate contained a huge chunk of floating voters whose defining characteristic was being dissatisfied with the status quo and who preferred to shop around for instant gratification. Many Fortuyn-voters had now thrown their weight behind the hard left which had cleverly managed to grasp this populist sentiment.
The outcome had thrown another curveball to Balkenende who after exploratory talks was tasked with forming his fourth coalition, but his first to be built with support from the left. And a bizarre mixture from the left at that. After Marijnissen's Socialists walked away from the table and the Green Left decided to sit it out in opposition, a defeated Labour and the small and socially conservative but fiscally more centrist and compassionate Christian Party will now line up behind 'Balkenende IV'.
The Dutch did not move to the right, nor did they re-embrace the good old grand schemes of the pioneers of the liberal welfare state. Fortuyn sensed the discontent and the need for change but none of the larger parties was intellectually equipped to grasp his inheritance and convert the feelings of fear and change into a cohesive and electorally compelling set of ideas. More than that, the Dutch crisis situation produced a mixture of political expediency and inexperience leading to a fractured parliament without any party having a sufficiently large mandate to govern or dominate a coalition arrangement.
Instead, some splinter groups of the right and left have done some good business, but it would be inaccurate to grant either stream the benefit of success or more importantly, characterizing either as symbolic of a new Dutch direction. The only thing that has happened to the Dutch over the past five years is a rude awakening to deep social and economic changes. The political mileage out of that is neither right, nor left; it has heralded an era of deep confusion and with it, political uncertainty for quite some time to come.