Dutch Voters Favor Prime Minister's Christian Democrats

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 23, 2006

THE HAGUE, Nov. 23 -- Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's right-of-center Christian Democratic Appeal party, which has led efforts to curtail Muslim immigration at a time of growing xenophobia in the Netherlands, won the most seats in parliamentary elections Wednesday, but voters voiced strong discontent with his government by giving unprecedented support to extremist parties at both ends of the political spectrum.

After half a decade of politically motivated murders and some of Europe's most acrimonious debate over the rapid influx of immigrants into this once homogenous country, election results reflected a public schizophrenia over how to resolve the country's problems and laid a political minefield for creating a coalition that can effectively govern the country.

As expected, no party won enough seats for a majority in the lower house of parliament. The erratic voting patterns shifted significant numbers of seats to parties with extremist views and robbed moderate parties of influence -- a result that stunned government officials and political analysts.

"It's a new signal from the voters," said Jan Marijnissen, leader of the Socialist Party, which won the third-highest number of seats in one of the biggest upsets of the day. The party promotes an anti-globalization, anti-European platform and advocates greater public spending on the poor and elderly.

But officials said the new signals are so mixed that it will be difficult for parties with similar ideologies to gather enough support to form a stable government. Balkenende said Wednesday night that his party would "build on the foundation we laid" but conceded that the election returns were "complicated" and that coalition negotiations, which could take months, would demand "a level head and perseverance."

"I'm satisfied that my party comes out as the winner, as the biggest party," Foreign Minister Bernard Bot, a member of the prime minister's Christian Democratic Appeal, said in a telephone interview from the party's boisterous campaign headquarters. "But you also see the other parties are scattered over the globe of opinions and views. You have 20 to 25 percent of the people looking for a new alternative but not quite able to express themselves in a coherent way."

With 98 percent of the votes counted early Thursday, Balkenende's CDA won 41 seats; the left-of-center Labor Party, 32; the Socialist Party, 26, more than tripling its current seats; and the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, a fiscally conservative party that also opposed European Union political integration, 22 seats.

Right-wing parliamentarian Geert Wilders, who advocates ending all immigration and who has been the lone voice for his one-man party, won nine seats for his party in the next parliament.

"We are a normal party that wants lower taxes and tougher sentences, but we are also proud of our culture and against the rise of Islam in Dutch society," Wilders said at his party headquarters. "There are enough Muslims in the Netherlands and enough mosques."

At the opposite end of the political spectrum, a newly created animal rights party that wants to see animal rights incorporated into the constitution and opposes many industrial forms of agriculture, was expected to win two seats.

The rancor over immigration fueled a nationwide debate on such issues as racism and Islamaphobia, once deemed too politically incorrect for public discussion in a country with a reputation for social tolerance, and helped force open a political selection process historically dominated by an entrenched elite with little regard for public sentiment.

Following trends gaining strength in elections across Europe this year, Dutch politicians -- spurred by advisers trained in the media-dominated campaign styles of the United States and Britain -- waged political cyber-war on the Internet and saturated television and radio with a blizzard of advertisements and appearances unprecedented in Dutch politics.

With 24 parties on the ballot, millions of Dutch turned to new political Web sites designed to help voters determine which party would be most compatible with their views.

Voter turnout, which was estimated at 78 percent and considered high by U.S. standards, was a few points lower than in previous Dutch elections. The high voter turnouts are due in part to Dutch law that does not require voters to show up in person to cast ballots; a family member or other designated individual can present a valid, signed voter card for those who can't or don't want to go to one of the country's 10,000 polling stations.

With a few exceptions, the antagonism and hostility over immigration and Islam that characterized recent elections was largely absent from this fall's parliamentary contest. Most parties agree that immigration should be limited, and public opinion has hardened across the Netherlands' blurred party lines, with many left-leaning parties moving closer to the views of right-of-center parties.

Restrictive policies of recent governments have slashed the number of immigrants, particularly Muslim immigrants, admitted into the country in the past five years. In a move interpreted by some Muslim groups as an attempt to further discourage religious Muslims from moving to the Netherlands, the application packet for new immigrants includes a two-hour video on Dutch culture with scenes of women sunbathing topless on Dutch beaches -- "People do not make a fuss about nudity," the narrator reports -- and two men kissing in a meadow, illustrating that homosexuals have the same rights as heterosexuals in the country.

When hard-line immigration Minister Rita Verdonk announced last week that the current government would seek approval of a bill banning the wearing of face-covering burqas and veils, the plan received worldwide media coverage. In the Netherlands, the announcement produced barely a blip.

"It had almost no influence," said Maurice de Hond, one of the Netherlands' most influential pollsters. "Not many people are against the proposal. It's not a real issue."

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