Upcoming Dutch Elections Show How Slain Populist’s Views On Immigration Are Now Mainstream

Upcoming Dutch elections show how slain populist's views on immigration are now mainstream
The Associated Press

Published: October 5, 2006

UTRECHT, Netherlands When the flamboyant populist Pim Fortuyn first suggested in 2002 that the Netherlands was “full” of immigrants and that Muslims must adopt Dutch ways, his brazen breach of traditional Dutch tolerance took the nation aback.

Now as the Netherlands heads for its third general election in four years, Fortuyn's ideas are firmly embedded in the mainstream. With the new campaign just beginning, it's clear that the battles that defined Dutch politics in recent years are over and that the right has won.

As a result, immigration, integration and Islamic radicalism are marginal issues in this campaign. It isn't that they are no longer important rather that the nation has rallied around the idea that a tough approach has become necessary.

To be sure, the challenge of balancing that approach with the Dutch social conscience and liberal democratic values seems to guarantee more upheaval.

There was little argument last year when the government ordered the expulsion of thousands of families by mid-2007 whose asylum applications have been rejected and who have managed to stay on for several years. But objections were raised when immigrant children were locked up in detention centers along with their parents to await deportation.

In the campaign for the Nov. 22 election, however, immigration issues have largely been overtaken by the pocketbook issues of pensions, mortgages and health care for the aged.

In the largest parties' lengthy policy platforms, immigration ranks after culture and sport. Queen Beatrix's Sept. 19 speech from the throne the government-drafted State of the Nation address to parliament barely mentioned it.

On one level, the shift in focus suggests the Dutch are overcoming the national trauma that began after the openly gay, right-wing Fortuyn was shot dead (by an animal rights activist) nine days before the 2002 election, and which reached a critical mass after the slaying of Theo van Gogh in 2004 by a Muslim extremist who felt the outspoken filmmaker had insulted Islam.

But there is another dynamic at play: the nation's penchant for being a testing ground for unconventional ideas.

Holland is a rare case of a society that values consensus but also is quick to embrace experimentation. Progressive policies that have turned it into a world trailblazer include legalizing prostitution and euthanasia, and tolerating the open sale of marijuana.

This time, it's taking the lead in Europe with unorthodox measures that are the traditional domain of the right: cracking down on asylum and immigration with steps such as citizenship tests and subjecting prospective newcomers to a film on Dutch life briefly showing topless women and homosexuals kissing designed to deter those who find such behavior offensive.

The Dutch appear to have shed their reflexive embrace of multiculturalism to adopt policies that will compel foreigners to integrate.

Michiel van Hulten, campaign manager for the front-running Labor Party, acknowledged his party's immigration platform isn't much different than its chief rival's and that both centrist parties were chasing public opinion largely formed by Fortuyn.

“We have taken on the concerns that ordinary people have,” he said in a telephone interview. “I think there is more of a consensus.”

The anxieties of absorbing a million Muslim immigrants have certainly not gone away.

Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's center-right government, powered by the unbending Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk, has promulgated a series of tough measures to curb immigration and to force those already here to conform to the Dutch way of life.

Balkenende said Thursday his government has earmarked 4 million (US$5 million) for a pilot project to give language tests to toddlers from immigrant families before their third birthday, and send them to nursery schools if they prove deficient in Dutch.

Such policies are having an effect in the small but crowded nation of 16.3 million people. In the first half of this year, 44,000 people moved to the Netherlands many from Poland while 63,000 left, including some 35,000 former immigrants, said the Central Bureau of Statistics.

About 1.7 million people are first or second generation immigrants from non-Western countries, mainly Morocco and Turkey. Muslims could account for up to 10 percent of the vote, and local elections earlier this year indicate they will overwhelmingly lean toward the left.

All major parties feature immigrants high in their lineup of candidates. They include the Labor Party's No. 2, Nebahat Albayrak, a Turkish-born woman who chairs parliament's defense committee.

Integration issues play out on a daily basis at the Vader Rijn College in the medieval university town of Utrecht.

Set in a poor neighborhood of prefabricated apartment blocs, the vocational high school is 80 percent immigrant. Many of its 700 students come from families where fathers are unemployed and mothers cannot read. At least six youngsters have been removed from school and deported as illegal immigrants, though they lived in the Netherlands since they were small.

School director Bart Engbers says it's a mistake to avoid discussing the problems of the emerging immigrant underclass.

Politicians “don't speak about the big issues,” said Engbers. “People say, 'Let's have some rest now.' But everyone knows there is no rest.”

Once all white, his technical school became predominantly immigrant in the late 1990s, and he said the Dutch need to adjust to ongoing change. “The world will be different in 10 years. Holland will never be Holland again. It will be more European, but with a lot of Moroccan and Turkish people who have real positions.”

For Engbers, the question of integrating Muslim immigrants is a daily dilemma. This summer he fired a woman teacher who decided it was wrong to shake hands with men. He sees no problem with schoolgirls wearing headscarves, but he said the teacher crossed a line.

“We have to prepare them (his students) to manage themselves in society and in the labor market,” he said.