Ex-mayor offers Dutch voters return to tolerance
By Arthur Max
The Associated Press, June 4, 2010
AMSTERDAM—-Job Cohen is out to make a point. At a time when male-dominated political parties preach anti-Islam exclusion, the message of the Dutch Labor party leader is inclusiveness and equality.
That's why the candidate list of the nation's second-biggest party for the June 9 parliamentary elections goes man-woman-man-woman, alternating gender through the top 60 names.
No. 2 is a Turkish-born Muslim woman, and 15 is a Moroccan immigrant who made his name as a political leader of Amsterdam's toughest Muslim neighborhood. Also on the list is an openly gay candidate.
Cohen himself, who was Amsterdam's mayor for nearly a decade, is the grandson of Holocaust victims whose roots go deep into Holland's once-numerous Jewish community, though he describes himself as thoroughly secular.
Cohen's old-school Dutch values of tolerance are fighting a tide of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim sentiment sweeping not only the Netherlands but much of Europe.
Nationalist parties have been an increasingly powerful political force in western Europe.
A referendum in Switzerland forbade building minarets to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer. Belgium's lower house has enacted a ban on the traditional face-covering veil, though it must be ratified by the upper house, and France has begun similar legislation. Even Britain, home to millions of migrants from its former colonies, is questioning its long-cherished multiracial traditions.
Unlike other Europeans who see their national identities fading under an onslaught of migration, Cohen has no fear of a multicultural nation.
'We have to maintain a society that includes rather than excludes people, a society where people do not judge each other, but give each other space within the limits of the law,' says the 62-year-old Cohen.
Polls indicate that Labor, under the popular Cohen who assumed the party leadership in March, has an outside shot at winning power.
Cohen was credited with keeping the ethnic lid on his city during its worst provocations the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States and the 2004 murder of anti-Islam filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a radical Muslim youth.
His nemesis is Geert Wilders, 46, the flamboyant bleach-blond leader of the populist Freedom Party, who proposes closing Dutch borders to immigrants from Muslim countries, banning the construction of new mosques and charging a 'headscarf tax' for Muslim women.
'By allowing mass immigration, the Netherlands is not importing prosperity but criminality and welfare dependence. This madness has to end as quickly as possible,' Wilders told supporters on Monday.
In the Dutch political system of proportional representation, candidates win seats according to their place on the party list. The leader of the largest party normally is invited by Queen Beatrix to form a governing coalition. Altogether, as many as 10 parties may win representation in the 150-member parliament.
Seldom have pre-election polls been as crazy as this year, following the collapse in February of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's center-right coalition that included Labor.
For some time, Wilders was the most popular man in the country, a come-from-nowhere potential prime minister predicted to triple his party's nine parliamentary seats.
Then the Labor Party changed leaders, summoning the popular Amsterdam mayor onto the national stage. Overnight, the party's lackluster ratings exploded, putting Cohen briefly in the lead.
The third man in the race and now the man to beat is Mark Rutte of the pro-business Peoples Party for Democracy and Freedom, known by its Dutch acronym VVD. Rutte, a 43-year-old former personnel executive of Unilever, has been described as 'Wilders light,' whose tough stand on immigration only lacks Wilders' vitriol.
Balkenende, 54, the head of the Christian Democratic Alliance who has led four governments over the last eight years, is running a distant fourth.
Though Wilders has grabbed the headlines, most voters are wary of his harsh rhetoric and weary of his one-dimensional campaign, and his standing in the polls dropped steadily as polling day neared. Wilders faces criminal charges for propagating 'hate speech' in his 17-minute Internet film called Fitna, which overlays verses from the Quran against a backdrop of images of international terrorist attacks.
If the election had been held two months ago, Cohen would have won, says Andre Krouwel of the Free University, the author of several books on European political parties. Cohen combines an embrace of minorities with an acceptance of tough rules on immigration many of which he drafted when he was a junior minister in 2001.
Cohen's pragmatic problem-solving approach and apparent lack of political guile Dutch mayors are appointed rather than elected and Cohen has never campaigned for a top post appealed to centrist voters.
Then suddenly, the election dynamic shifted. Europe became embroiled in a debt crisis, the common European currency plunged in value and Europe had to contrive a rescue package for Greece and other ailing countries sharing the euro.
'Cohen has no profile on the economy. People don't know where he stands,' Krouwel said. His faltering performance in a series of televised debates underscored his shaky economics.
Rutte and the VVD, on the other hand, offered what voters saw as a coherent plan targeting the budget deficit, government spending and job creation. Critics say the VVD plan would hurt low income groups.
Balkenende has lost political credibility, even though he steered the Dutch economy on a steadier course than most European states.
'Balkenende looks like the guy who drove the car off the road four times. Are you going to give him a fifth car?' said Krouwel.
Rutte has kept his focus on the economy since he took over the party in 2006 after a bitter leadership battle. As early as January 2008, when the Dutch economy was showing resilience against the spreading European weakness, he predicted the crisis would catch up with the Netherlands as well.
If the VVD wins, as the polls suggest, it will be the first time since its precursor formed a government in 1913, although the VVD has been a junior partner in several governments led by Labor or the Christian Democrats.
But Rutte likely would have a difficult task assembling a workable coalition. Virtually all parties rule out a coalition with Wilders, and the VVD has deep differences with the two other centrist parties, Labor and the Christian Democrats.
Rutte himself lacks broad appeal. Before the VVD's fortunes turned, he considered yielding his candidacy for the premiership to Neelie Kroes, a high-profile businesswoman who won international credentials as a tough European commissioner against monopolies.
'These elections are not about who has the highest X-factor to become prime minister,' Rutte told party loyalists recently.