Geert Wilders, whose anti-immigrant party more than doubled its vote in June’s elections, forced his way to the center of Dutch politics by agreeing to back a minority government of Liberals and Christian Democrats.
Wilders and his 23 fellow lawmakers in the Freedom Party intend to support a Cabinet led by Liberal Mark Rutte under a preliminary deal reached July 30, giving it the smallest possible majority in the 150-seat lower house of parliament. Wilders agreed to an 18 billion-euro ($23 billion) budget cut, in exchange for measures to control immigration and crack down on crime.
The agreement to form a minority coalition, the first since World War II, ends almost seven weeks of deadlock. Yet some Liberals and Christian Democrats are concerned that Wilders won’t share ministerial responsibility and will thus retain a free hand to voice anti-Islamic sentiments that don’t mesh with their parties’ traditions of religious and racial tolerance.
“The Freedom Party gets a lot of power and it still has the freedom to say all the things Wilders says that I oppose so much,” Frans Weisglas, a former Liberal speaker of parliament, told NOS radio on July 31. The Christian Democrats and Liberals “have let themselves be swallowed whole by the Freedom Party, which is very regrettable.”
The Freedom Party, founded by former Liberal lawmaker Wilders in 2006, seeks to ban new mosques, curb immigration, cut development aid and reduce the influence of the European Union. Wilders, 46, receives police protection around the clock and faces trial on charges of inciting hatred in his 2008 film “Fitna,” in which he calls on Muslims to rip out “hate- preaching” verses from the Koran.
Wilders’s wish to curb the influence of Islam in the Netherlands, home to 850,000 Muslims, runs counter to the constitutional right to freedom of education agreed on by Liberals and Christian Democrats almost a century ago and the freedom of religion achieved by the Dutch in the 80 Years’ War against Spanish rule that ended with independence in 1648.
“There are questions, there are doubts, but within the party we fully agree on one thing: we will not bargain on a number of fundamentals that apply in our country and that the Christian Democratic Alliance has helped develop,” Henk Bleker, the party’s acting chairman, told Tros radio on July 31.
The agreement to start the first formal talks on a minority Cabinet came after two previous attempts to put together a government ended in failure. The Liberals, led by Rutte, 43, became the largest party in the June 9 elections, as the Christian Democrats of outgoing Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende lost half of their support.
“The negotiations are yet to start, but if it does work, that would be great for the Netherlands,” Wilders, who sports a bleached blond bouffant hairstyle, told reporters in The Hague on July 30.
Queen Beatrix asked Ruud Lubbers, a three-time prime minister, to broker talks among the parties on July 22. Two days earlier, discussions on a coalition of Liberals, Labor and the D66 and Green Left parties collapsed, with the Liberals and Labor split over the extent of budget cuts.
Lubbers, 71, is today speaking with leaders of the other political parties before reporting back to the queen on the proposed minority Cabinet.
“It’s his job to look into forming majority governments,” Job Cohen, the Labor leader and former Amsterdam mayor, told NOS radio July 31. “Our country really needs a stable majority cabinet in this difficult economic situation.”
Austerity measures are the most important issue on political agenda, with the Netherlands, the fifth-largest economy in the euro region, needing to narrow its deficit from a forecast 6.3 percent of gross domestic product this year to 3 percent by 2013 to meet EU rules.
“We will negotiate to see if we can help cut those 18 billion euros,” Wilders told NOS on July 30. “In return we get a firm immigration policy, a firm integration policy, a law-and- order policy and measures to fight the lack of security in the Netherlands.”
While Wilders supports Liberal and Christian Democrat plans to continue a tax break for mortgage payers and dropped opposition to a pension-age increase a day after the election, he still opposes their demands for cuts in health-care and unemployment benefits.
“I don’t expect these parties to come to a quick agreement on the economy,” Andre Krouwel, who teaches political science at VU University in Amsterdam, said in a telephone interview July 31. “The Liberal Party and the Freedom Party are willing to cut spending on, for example, development aid, but the Christian Democrats are opposed to that because helping the poor is supported by their voters.”
If the formal negotiations don’t succeed, it would leave the Liberals with limited options to achieve a majority government; the most straightforward would be teaming up with the Christian Democrats and Labor, which placed second in the elections.
While Rutte favored such an alliance immediately after the talks on a four-party coalition collapsed, he now rejects it. “I’m no longer available for alternatives,” the newspaper De Telegraaf cited him today as saying.