terça-feira, 4 de outubro de 2016
Netherlands braces for sharp right turn
Netherlands braces for sharp right turn
Tradition of compromise succumbs to a new appetite for conflict.
By TOM-JAN MEEUS 10/4/16, 5:55 AM CET
THE HAGUE — One of Europe’s most liberal countries is on the brink of turning decisively to the right. Ahead of the elections in the Netherlands on March 15 next year, polls show a tight race between center-right Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his political foe Geert Wilders, a right-wing firebrand with staunch positions on Islam (ban the Quran), the EU (get out) and immigration (close all borders).
Two dominant politicians who once were close allies are now in a position to possibly trash the Dutch Left, a political force that has reliably collected close to 50 percent of the vote since World War II.
Fiscal conservative Rutte blends a typical right-wing agenda — small government, low taxes — with the Dutch tradition of governing by compromise. Far-right Wilders breaks with that tradition and routinely attacks the consensus building attitude of the political class.
The fight pits the “old” Netherlands against the “new,” and the culture of compromise against a new appetite for conflict and polarization. The hot button issues are immigration, religion (read: Islam) and terrorism.
For Rutte and Wilders, this is all very personal, too.
While popular culture loves to hate compromise, voters tend to support the politician most skilled at delivering it.
As prime minister, Rutte is known for striking policy deals with parties from across the political spectrum — from the far Left to the far Right, from evangelical Christians to anti-religious progressives.
Winning the next election would most likely mean he becomes the leader of a coalition government of four or five parties, a complicated setup that reflects a particularly Dutch paradox: while popular culture loves to hate compromise, voters tend to support the politician most skilled at delivering it.
Wilders has spent most of his life fighting this style of politics. As a member of parliament for the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), he fiercely fought for a harder line on immigration, Islam and the EU’s relations with Turkey. When that failed, he decided to start a party of his own in 2004.
He drew inspiration from VVD’s former leader Frits Bolkestein, who detested what he saw as an opaque consensus culture, and adopted the confrontational style that made Bolkestein a cult hero in right-wing intellectual circles.
Controversy became Wilders’ brand. He framed Islam as a violent political ideology and has refused to soften his position, despite being under 24/7 protection because of Muslim terrorist treats since 2004.
When rumor had it that Wilders planned to release a documentary film on Islam in 2008, government ministers, agencies and lobby groups threatened to hold him personally accountable for any possible response from the Muslim world.
A few of his staffers later revealed to me that Wilders had serious panic attacks at the time, but in public he did not waver. The incident reinforced his public image: Here was a politician who would simply never cave.
In 2010, Rutte became prime minister at the head of a shaky coalition government. Wilders’ parliamentary support was crucial. He promised to vote for Rutte’s economic and social policies. In return, Rutte toughened Dutch policies on immigration and some cultural issues. Wilders reserved the right to distance himself from Rutte on any other issue, protecting his reputation on issues like Islam and the EU.
This all ended very badly. During negotiations for another austerity package in the spring of 2012, Wilders unexpectedly decided to withdraw his support for the government, leaving Rutte in limbo and forcing him to form an unpopular coalition government with the Labour Party.
The aftermath was an existential and occasionally nasty fight between the two politicians. Wilders has been on the rise the last couple of years. Rutte, meanwhile, has long been on shakier ground.
His austerity and reform policies are widely denounced by the general public. He has suffered badly in the polls, and the Labour Party is close to total collapse.
Meanwhile, despite problems within his fragile political party, Wilders has managed to lead the polls for much of Rutte’s tenure. He has pounced on the prime minister at every chance, attacking his policies on refugees, terrorism, the euro and the welfare state. In the midst of the refugee crisis late 2015, Wilders held a 10 percentage point lead over Rutte.
Things have improved for Rutte over the summer. He is closing in on Wilders, with the rest of the parties far behind. The EU refugee deal with Turkey, which came together while Rutte was EU chairman, helped spread the perception that the migration crisis is under control. And the Dutch economy is finally doing well. Most citizens are far more confident about their financial circumstances than in 2010, when Rutte first took office.
The new Netherlands could well become a country that prefers conflict and confrontation over consensus and tolerance.
Rutte has framed the next election as a choice between him and Wilders. For Dutch politics, this is unprecedented territory. The campaign pits two right-wing parties against one another, instead of the traditional fight between the Right and the Left.
In Dutch political campaigns, the two leading parties typically gain from a two-way fight, to the detriment of the other parties. So the most probable outcome at this point will see Rutte and Wilders both do very well, while the Left stands to suffer historic losses.
Particularly in the areas of immigration, terror and Islam, this would mean a dramatic turn to the right. The new Netherlands could well become a country that prefers conflict and confrontation over consensus and tolerance.
For the past 40 years, the Netherlands have, with just two exceptions, followed the U.S. electorate: When the U.S. turned to the left or right in a presidential race, the Dutch did the same.
The Left recognizes the danger — but it does not appear to have the power to do anything about it. Their main problem is their failure to come up with a serious alternative to either Wilders or Rutte.
All of this will play out against the backdrop of the United States’ presidential election in November. The Dutch will be watching particularly closely.
In many ways, it is their election, too. As the U.S. goes, so goes the Netherlands. For the past 40 years, the Netherlands have, with just two exceptions, followed the U.S. electorate: When the U.S. turned to the left or right in a presidential race, the Dutch did the same.
This explains why Dutch politicians have always been happy to criticize American policies, but eager to copy American politics. Rutte may be critical of the U.S.’s social policies, and Wilders may strongly oppose President Obama’s foreign policy, but both politicians have taken plenty of advice from U.S. strategists.
Sources in Rutte’s party attribute his path to power in part to his decision to turn to U.S. Republican Party strategist David Winston when his party was in deep trouble 10 years ago.
Wilders, meanwhile, has been in close contact with many Republicans with Tea Party credentials, agitators such as Steve King, Michele Bachmann and Tom Tancredo, whose aggressive approach to politics has served as a template for Wilders.
The Dutch will likely make a decisive turn to the right next March. Just how far they go is in the hands of the American voter.
Tom-Jan Meeus is a political columnist for the Dutch paper NRC Handelsblad. He worked as a U.S. correspondent and was awarded best political writer of the Netherlands in 2015.