One might say, The New Republic journal “the liberal counterpart” of the conservative National Review. If so, it is very Lieberman-lite liberalism at best.

The New Republic has this article now:

Right Turn
by Abigail R. Esman  

“Open” has long been a catchword for the Netherlands, referring to everything from the flat, low-lying fields of Zuid-Holland and the curtainless windows of Amsterdam and The Hague to the country’s liberal stances on marijuana and prostitution, both of which are enjoyed freely and legally in cheerful “coffee shops” and red-lighted bordellos throughout the country. To many, the country has long seemed the apotheosis of a free, liberal, and democratic state.  

But, these days, Filip Dewinter, leader of one of Europe’s most extreme far-right political parties, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest), has had nothing but praise for his liberal neighbors to the north. In speech after speech over the past months, Dewinter has repeated the same refrain: “Once, Holland was the model country for everything left and progressive. Now, it is the model for the right and conservative powers.”

Having lived 7-8 years in the Netherlands, I am surprised and concerned. On the other hand, the 2002 election season saw special yet timely unrecognized circumstances, not completely unlike the 2000 Gore-Bush debacle. The consequences are not very logical yet rather daunting (for some).

During 1994-2002, the Netherlands lived through quite outstanding “years of peace of prosperity”, under governance of the Purple coalition lead by the social democratic PvdA and economically liberal VVD parties. The 2002 election campaign was expected to be a dull tussle between new leaders of PvdA and VVD (Melkert and Dijkstal) for larger control of the parliament. The Christian Democratic party CDA seemed to be in crisis; they had chosen young Balkenende to lead – they were hardly expecting immediate success.

But then along came Pim Fortuyn – a rather obscure right-wing columnist and former sociology professor. He was picked by a new Leefbaar Nederland party to lead their parliamentary list, and quickly gathered attention with his oratory style and controversial comments on immigration and  “subsidy socialism”. The Volkskrant interview of February 10, 2002 produced too much controversy for other Leefbaar Nederland leaders, and Pim Fortuyn was dismissed from the parliamentary list. Fortuyn then formed his own party, LPF. In early March 2002 he won local elections in Rotterdam, as a leader of Leefbaar Rotterdam. I think that success of local Leefbaar parties helped Pim Fortuyn enormously, directly or indirectly. But the developments were pitiful for the national Leefbaar party.

The weight of Pim Fortuyn became evident during the televised debates. The new leaders of PvdA and VVD appeared not only as dull figures compared with Fortuyn, they acted outright dismissively and arrogantly towards him. Suddenly prospects of the third “purple” coalition became bleak. The CDA leader Balkenende wisely (though not surprisingly) acted as a nice guy in the middle; that alone could bring CDA back to prominence.

The circumstances became especially singular when Pim Fortuyn was murdered on May 6, 2002, just nine days before the general election. The elections went on. The winner was CDA (43 seats out of 150), still surprisingly. In hindsight, that was a logical consequence of voter’s contempt towards PvdA, VVD, and their doubts about LPF inexperience or unpredictability. The LPF got 26 seats, VVD 24 seats, PvdA 23 seats, etc.

Balkenende became the prime minister, but his CDA/LPF/VVD cabinet lasted only three months. In January 2003 there were new general elections. The PvdA with a new charismatic leader made a comeback (42 seats), but the CDA still won (44 seats). The VVD got 28 seats, the LPF dropped to 8 seats. That meant the CDA/VVD dominated conservative cabinet.

I did not experience the Balkenende years closely, but friends’ political mood is not high. What is most frequently said about modern Holland, is not what they would firstly agree. It is indeed strange to read in the “liberal” US journal article this:

Increasingly – from a crackdown on immigration to a proposal to teach intelligent design to the censorship of a TV program satirizing the royal family (despite reports that the queen herself actually enjoyed the show) – Holland is, indeed, becoming a right-wing nation, in some ways an inversion of its former self.

What happened is that indeed xenophobic politics gained some ground, and conservatives gained some appeal. But a large portion of population cannot identify themselves with current government policies and emphatically stressed concerns. In particular, they certainly wouldn’t agree that the murder of film director Theo van Gogh changed the Dutch society far more profoundly than 9/11 changed the USA, as the article of Esman claims. Theo van Gogh was not a popular figure, personal sympathy was not great. The “profound” change and rightward shift is principally evidenced by government policies (tougher immigration laws, mandatory ID carrying, increased video surveillance on streets, approved government access to records of Internet surfing, book and video purchases or rentals, phone conversations and bank transactions). There is very little evidence that Holland wanted these changes, that national security is the primary issue, that people are willing to sacrifice liberties (as well as social benefits) out of fear of Islamic terrorism.

Political turbulence and violence do have consequences – the tension with Muslim emigrants rises, the media routinely reports the incidents and discusses immigration. But current government policies and induced distrust are seen as a critical part of the vicious cycle. When the former LPF member Nawijn joins up with Belgium’s Dewinter to create a think tank aimed at examining immigration, multiculturalism, and security, we should read it as creation of a political think tank for conservative dominance. It is very ironic that the American “liberal” journal takes their intentions at face value. And the following (closing) paragraph you expect to see only in American Enterprise type journals:

Now, a little more than a year after van Gogh’s murder, Holland finds itself in a kind of social quagmire: The more repressive the government and the more Muslim-unfriendly it is perceived to be, the more radicalized its Muslim youth become. The anger is palpable: Gone are the days of carefree strolls through Amsterdam streets or smiling nods to neighbors of another race. One looks twice now. The smiles are often false – a kind of armor people wear – to protect themselves from anger and from fear.

It is instructive to compare the American and Dutch policy shifts in 2000 and 2002, respectively. Militant media bias or electoral irregularities were not problems in the Dutch case. (Pim Fortuyn did complain about media bias against him, but that was more justified than GOP preventive-deceptive whining about “liberal media bias”.) The two examples show how easily a widely successful progressive government can be replaced by opposite conservative policies. Political elitism and slight dissatisfactions can have huge consequences. And of course, media performance of politicians is a tremendous factor, whether that media performance was indeed poor or just urgedly perceived as such.

If Esman’s article ought to be believed, the mood of Dutch progressives is just desperate:

Caught in the middle, Dutch moderates have started leaving – largely for Canada and New Zealand, according to one report – and net emigration in the first half of 2004 was the largest since the 1950s. More interestingly, many moderate Dutch Muslims – mostly Turks – have started making plans to leave as well. “It’s less radical there than here,” one aspiring émigré, who planned to move to Turkey, told a Dutch newspaper.

Is that really so bad?

[Crossposted at European Tribune and Daily Kos.]

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