Reading Doug Saunders in yesterday’s Globe and Mail, it seemed that the predicted victory of Mark Rutte, the 43-year-old telegenic leader of the centre-right, pro-business VVD (Liberal) Party, would mean the triumph of an amazing, mature, unprecedented, very welcome masochism. Since the onslaught of the Greek debt-crisis, it is sweeping through Europe. In keeping with this sweep, Rutte promised “pain, lots of it, for years to come.” Masochism, i.e., good sense, paid off. Rutte’s party won 31 seats in a 150-member parliament, more than any other party. He will be prime minister in a three- or four-party coalition government.
Elections can lead to more than one triumph. Geert Wilders, the radical leader of the far-right Freedom Party, which he had formed in 2005, the bogeyman of Dutch politics, campaigning on a clear anti-Islam, anti-immigration platform, tripled his seats. He called yesterday “a glorious day” – with good reason. He won 15 seats, far more than the polls had predicted. Previously the party had only 9. He may have done so well because in the last few weeks of the campaign his speeches were relatively moderate. But Wilders did not do as well as many had thought likely when the election was called in February. The Freedom Party’s pledged to ban Muslims from entering the country, deny social support to other immigrants and introduce a tax on head scarves.
It is by no means a certainty that Wilders, who is facing trial in a Dutch court for inciting hatred, will be a partner in the coalition Mark Rutte will have to form. Up to now no mainstream party would have anything to do with him. But “now they can’t ignore us any more,” Wilders said yesterday, thinking wishfully. Rutte and Job Cohen’s Labour Party, which won 30 seats – only one less than Rutte’s VVD Party – plus one other party, may be able to work out an agreement, keeping him out.
Job Cohen is the antithesis of Geert Wilders. The calm, unflappable, 62-year-old mayor of Amsterdam, a secular Jew whose parents had spent WW 2 hiding from the Nazis and whose paternal grandparents had died in Belsen-Bergen, had made a point of working with Muslims, of opening the door to them. In the election of 2006 he had doubled the seats for the Labour Party and many well-meaning Dutch people saw in his popularity the possibility of a new society.
In yesterday’s election the Number Two candidate was a woman, Nebahart Albavrak, born in the central Anatolian region of Turkey. As a child she had moved to Rotterdam where her father worked as a scaffold builder. The significance of a Jew and a Turk running together escaped nobody. Other candidates came from a mix of ethnicities, representing the worst fears of Geert Wilders. Members of minorities can easily relate to Cohen, an outsider but very much part of society. In a story about him in The New York Times Magazine (May 30), a 2006 study of Amsterdam’s immigrant groups was mentioned, focusing on what made certain Muslim communities turn to violence. Of a total Muslim population of 1,400, the study found only two percent were potentially becoming radicalized.
It is an open question whether Geert Wilders will be more of a threat to decency inside a coalition or outside.
If we need reassurance all we have to do is look at Facebook. A page devoted to Cohen had more than 12,000 members the week after it was started.
Its slogan was Yes We Cohen.