In Dutch Election Economy Could Trump Muslim, Immigration Fears

(AMSTERDAM) Later this week the Dutch Tweede Kamer (Parliamentary lower chamber) will see a spirited fight over: the current economic malaise, encroachment of Islam, taxes, fees and jobs for its 150 seats. Chosen by proportional representation, the election has been the most difficult in years to handicap as daily headlines about the global economy now seemingly trump fears of Islamic encroachment. This has dulled the once rising star of the controversial Geert Wilders and his PVV (Party for Freedom).

As MP Harry van Bommel, number 2 in the Socialist Party (SP) said, "the issue of Islam has people not as bothered. When they are worrying about their own wallets, head scarves are a minor issue compared to paying more taxes and larger fees. People are now worried about jobs and money."

The current Christian Democrats (CDA) and Labour (PvdA) coalition government was scuttled 90-days ago when Labour resigned saying it could not support a decision to extend the military/combat mission in Afghanistan. They wanted it to remain as a "training-only" mission. Most analysts agreed this was a 'straw man' argument and that Labour/PvdA really wanted to distance itself from the coming budget carnage as between €10-20 billion euros will need to be cut across the board. New PvdA leader, Job Cohen, is the long-time mayor of Amsterdam and his style is considered by many to be less parliamentarian/consensus building because of his current executive role.

The election also seems snakebit. Two of the main parties CDA and SP launched their campaigns on the day a tragic early morning airplane crash in Libya claimed the lives of 66 Dutch citizens traveling home from holidays in South Africa. Their expensive campaign launch events were, justifiably, lost to the breaking tragic news and miraculous survival of an 8-year old Dutch boy.

The two parties were already under considerable fire. CDA, the party of Minister-President Jan Peter Balkenende, had fallen from favour and, much like UK Labour and PM Gordon Brown, had outlived their 'sell-by' date. They have been the party in power most of the past decade and therefore get the lion's share of the blame for the current economic situation. Mr. Balkenende though has been urging the Dutch not to vote for Mr. Wilders comparing him unfavourably to the party leader he initially failed to form a government with after the assassination of their leader, Pim Fortuyn. Balkenende this weekend said in an interview with Elsevier, "a vote for Wilders would be bad for the Dutch economy." This was after Turkish PM Erdogan on a visit to the UK branded Wilders a "total freak" and said "entrepreneurs should not vote for him as his statements will damage Dutch exports."

The SP is The Netherlands 3rd largest party and although it has been in opposition the last decade and seen its membership grow from 9 to 25 seats, their disastrous run in recent municipal elections cost party leader Agnes Kant her job in March. Despite the change of leadership to a more youthful Emile Roemer, the party could lose up to 60% of the seats it gained in this election.

That leaves the opposition Liberal Party (VVD) who are currently quietly in the lead. Their new party leader Mark Rutte has managed to fly safely below the radar and avoid major dust-ups with Wilders. They will likely be joined by the other Liberal Party (D-66) and could also gain support from the Green Party. However that is unlikely to give them a governing majority so they may be forced to reach out to Wilders. Much as was the case with Barack Obama and now David Cameron, one must ask, who would want to inherit this mess other than a serial masochist? Whoever wins, it could take a very long time to form a coalition government.

As Britain saw during elections last summer, L-R divides along racial lines gives rise to radical, single issue fringe parties like the BNP and UKIP. Both parties saw their fortunes rise in the low turnout (30%) EU Parliamentary elections. With lack of voter interest and a seeming political vacuum enter the most outspoken single issues fear mongers. Since politics and media pundits abhor a vacuum, racist and inflammatory fear purveyors like Nick Griffin and Geert Wilders emerge as "leaders" for the common man/woman. However, while Nick Griffin and his party won 1 seat in the EU Parliament he is considered a pariah by most. When 70% turned out for the recent UK General Election, his party won 0 seats in the House of Commons.

Similarly Wilders, 'the prophet' of The Netherlands and his campaign equating Islam with racism and terrorism, seems to be headed for a smaller piece of the electoral pie. Once on 30 seats, his party has fallen to 17 and any new government could see him as their coalition 'partner.'

The CDA's Balkenende has experience on that front. After the assassination of Pim Fortuyn, his party won 26 seats and joined the CDA in coalition. Without their leader though, the party descended into utter chaos and on the 90th day, Balkenende went to the Queen and asked her to dissolve Parliament saying they could not effectively rule. For the second time that year the Dutch went to the polls and rewarded Balkenende for his calm and prudence, reducing Pim Fortuyn's party to just 8 seats. Balkenende warned this weekend "Geert Wilders, with his attitude towards Muslims, cannot be compared with Pim Fortuyn. Fortuyn stood for a strict (immigration) admissions policy, but did not want to alter the population because of their faith."

So as we head into the home stretch, forget lofty campaign promises. This election has turned very dour and sober. It is now about who will cut the most and where. No one is SPINNING that fact. Said Harry van Bommel, "now the election is about who will offer necessary cuts. SP proposes €10B over 4 years, VVD offer €20B, Labour €10B and Mr. Wilders €15B. SP wants to change the mortgage system and cut defence. VVD wants to focus on cutting healthcare and services and so on..." He concluded, "it's a real L-R election and it's a long time since we've had such a polarised electorate."

In this tiny densely populated country of 16 million, it will likely come down to how many of them turn out to vote and how truly angry they are. While there have been no no tea bags spotted, a universal "throw all of the bums out," attitude also prevails in this picturesque land of canals and dikes holding back the tides. A sea change is headed this way, where is that little boy and his fingers plugging the leaks now when we need him?

This piece originally appeared on UK Progressive.