The New Dutch Government: An End to Tolerance?

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Jerry Lampen / Reuters

Netherlands' Queen Beatrix poses for a family photo during the presentation of the country's new Cabinet in The Hague October 14, 2010.

After four months of coalition negotiations, the Dutch government was sworn in on Thursday. As Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands led the new cabinet onto the balcony of the Huis ten Bosch Palace in The Hague for a formal group photo, there was a conspicuous absence from the ceremony: Geert Wilders, the flamboyantly strident anti-Islamic politician who holds the balance of power in the country. As the government begins ruling, however, there's no doubt Wilders' influence will be felt. And that has many citizens in The Netherlands worried that the era of famous Dutch tolerance is coming to a close.

The country's new Prime Minister is Mark Rutte, the 43-year-old leader of the pro-business liberal VVD party: with his coalition allies from the conservative Christian Democrats (CDA), Rutte leads the country's first minority administration since the Second World War. It took a full four months to cobble the minority coalition together because Wilders, whose far-right Freedom Party (PVV) surged to third place in the elections last June, securing 15% of the vote. Wilders and his party won't get ministerial representation in the government, but he has agreed to prop up the Rutte's minority government in Parliament.

In exchange, the incoming administration has accepted Wilders' demands for a harder line with immigrants and Muslims. The government program includes measures to ban the burqa; reject more asylum-seekers; halve immigration from non-Western countries; bar radical religious leaders entering the country; set language and citizenship classes for immigrants applying for residence permits; and fast-track expulsions of immigrants convicted of crimes. The anti-liberal shift also applies to other tenets of Dutch tolerance: the government has agreed to take a harder line toward the European Union, beef up the police, and close the famous coffee shops of Amsterdam to foreign tourists.

This reflects a sharp cultural shift, according to Henk Overbeek, professor of international relations at the Free University in Amsterdam. "It signals that the Netherlands is moving away from its longtime traditions of openness," he says. "This populist, right-wing, anti-immigrant rhetoric has become increasingly widespread and it is visible across Europe. Ironically, as immigration becomes less important — in part because of tighter legislation over past 20 years — the rhetoric has become louder."

Overbeek says the changes in the Netherlands are part of a broad trend sweeping across other northern European countries previously known for their liberal social attitudes. In Denmark, the populist Danish People's Party has supported a minority government since 2001. In Sweden's recent election, a surge for the far right gave the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats their first parliamentary seats. "An increasing part of the population feels abandoned by politicians, and this creates a breeding ground for populism," he says. "The rise in cultural nationalism has something to do with sense of alienation in a globalized world. And it expresses itself in hostility to outsiders and foreigners."

With his shock of white hair and penchant for strident attacks on Islam, Wilders will be the joker in the pack of the Dutch parliament, analysts say; no one quite knows how he will use his influence. Rob de Wijk, director of The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (HCSS), says Wilders will enjoy carping from the sidelines. "He has no responsibility. He can continue to play to the public gallery, while the government is completely at his mercy." De Wijk says this will likely happen when some of the planned measures — such as an end to the policy of automatically treating nationals of some countries as refugees — have to be abandoned because they break E.U. law.

De Wijk also worries about the effect of the coalition arrangement on Dutch credibility and prestige abroad. "The country has indeed become less tolerant, less European, more inward looking," he says. "Yet if this intolerance is reflected in our policies, it would be disaster. The Netherlands will no longer be seen as a loyal and reliable partner. It will undermine our reputation. We will marginalize ourselves."

Then there is the question of whether Rutte's precarious coalition can remain united. Even with the support of Wilders, the new government will have a majority of just one in the 150-seat lower house of parliament, and no majority at all in the upper house. It would take just one dissident from within the coalition ranks to bring it down — not an unlikely scenario, given the recent challenge to Wilders's leadership by one of his own MPs, and the Christian Democrats' internal disagreements on whether to join the coalition in the first place. A recent poll showed that only 28% of voters expect the government to run a full term, while 36% think it will collapse by the end of next year.

As for Wilders, he is for the moment occupied with other concerns: He is in court, charged with inciting hatred of Muslims after branding the Koran fascist and likening it to Mein Kampf, a trial that his supporters say is an attack on free speech and democracy. The trial is due to run until early next month, and will ensure — whatever the verdict — that he continues to dominate the news in The Netherlands. To the concern of many Dutch, his new power-broker arrangement means that he can dominate more than just headlines now.