Netherlands moves right, but faces political gridlock

As the dust settles following the most chaotic national parliament election in recent Dutch history, the political air remains unclear. It may stay that way for months as the new government, now led by the conservative party of Christian Democrats, seeks a way to build a coalition with the relatively unknown politicians from assassinated populist Pim Fortuyn's party, the Lijst Pim Fortuyn (LPF).

Wednesday's election confirmed Europe's shift to the right, with voters casting aside traditional parties for failing to address issues such as crime and immigration. Many of the newly elected officials have little or no political experience, which analysts say will make it difficult to enact the reforms the people say they want.

Though many of the newly elected members of Parliament were on the Rotterdam city government, they have only been in those positions for four months. Some only joined the "List" within the past six weeks.

The most difficult question is how the new government, headed by Christian Democrat leader and likely prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende, will build a coalition with the LPF.

"Mutual trust is a prerequisite to working together," Mr. Balkenende said of the chances of forming a coalition.

The last parliament already had 15 parties, forcing the debate to the very middle where few innovative or controversial ideas were brought up. The left wing – with Labor, Liberal, Democrats of '66 (D'66), and a smattering of small groups – could form a major block, undercutting any ideas the Christian Democrats and LPF have toward reform.

"The political landscape right now is a surrealistic landscape," says Sjoerd Vellenga, campaign manager for the leftist D'66 party, which lost four seats. "In half a year, the whole sphere has changed."

"There has been a hardening of positions on all sides," Mr. Vellenga says. "It is a difficult situation in an open society like ours, in a liberal society like we think we are. It will be difficult to work together when we have to get down to work. All these new members will have to learn all the rules of the parliamentary system, and to work together in coalition cabinets, which is what they always are in the Netherlands. It isn't insurmountable, but it does take about a half a year to figure out how everything works."

The Netherlands was thrown into upheaval by the volcanic rise of Mr. Fortuyn who broke the malaise of Dutch politics and ran on a populist platform of anti-immigration, anticrime, and antibureaucracy.

He was successful mainly because no other Dutch politicians would touch these taboo subjects.

Though many analysts say Europe is making a dramatic shift to the extreme right following the showing of Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, Fortyun in the Netherlands – as well as in Denmark, Italy, and Austria in recent years – it seems more that the shift is a squeeze on the cozy center-left. The political elite have ignored the voters, many populist candidates say.

"We must not lose contact with the people in the street," Van de Velden of LPF says. "You can have economic prosperity, but if people don't feel safe in the street, or if they don't feel they have a voice, it doesn't mean a thing."

Christian Democrats now hold 43 of 150 seats in Parliament. Fortuyn's party came in second with 26 seats. The former left government, headed by the Labor party (now with 23 seats) and a Liberal coalition (also with 23 seats), was ousted from an eight-year reign.

"These are hard times for social democracy in the Netherlands," Labor leader Ad Melkert said, following his party's loss of 22 seats. "These are hard times for social democracy in Europe."

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