WHEN a Dutch television station last week aired an investigative report documenting the violent anti-foreigner tendencies of one of the Netherlands' far-right leaders, a country universally known for tolerance may have been saved from a devastating image blow.
Before the now-famous broadcast, which showed the well-known leader describing before a hidden camera how he had set fire to houses where blacks lived, the country's rising extreme-right Center Democrats had been expected to take eight or more parliamentary seats in national elections being held today.
Now observers believe that number will fall as low as three - still higher than the one seat the party currently holds, but short of the publicity-grabbing triumph many in the country once feared.
What no television show will have changed, however, is the widespread anxiety gnawing uncharacteristically at the Dutch as they renew their 150-seat parliament.
``There is a great despair in the country that reflects fears of economic decline, worries about immigration and rising crime, and general apprehension about the future,'' says Meindert Fennema, a political scientist at the University of Amsterdam. ``There's a sense of relief about the [far right's] unexpected decline, but the reasons for its support are still there.''
Although the Netherlands came through Europe's recession relatively unscathed - at least statistically - it faces the same malaise afflicting other European states. Unemployment and public deficits are growing, leading to heated debates about the future of the sacrosanct welfare state. Widespread fears for deteriorating public safety receive increased attention, as do reports of the Netherlands becoming the ``human dump'' of Europe as neighboring countries tighten immigration and refugee laws.
The elections thus come down to the voters' sense of security, observers contend - whether financial, personal, or cultural. As in other European countries in recent years, foreigners in the Netherlands have increasingly become the scapegoats. Comparing the Dutch to American Indian tribes that believed their social disintegration would end if a great power would take the white man away, Mr. Fennema says, ``There's this growing certitude that if only the foreigners would leave the country, we would have again the solidarity and social cohesion that for so long made [the country] work.''
Further signaling disintegration of the country's traditional order is a recomposition of the Dutch political landscape. For the first time in more than 75 years, the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) could be kept out of the government, leaving the socialists, Liberals, and center-left Democrats 66 to form a governing coalition.
``Just as in the [former] Soviet Union, here is a 75-year-old hegemony coming to an end,'' commented the weekly newsmagazine Elsevier on prospects for the CDA's fall from power. The fall of the CDA, an amalgam of otherwise self-segregated Catholics and Protestants, marks the secularization and individualization of Dutch society.
The political forecast
What will replace it remains unclear and increases the flow to the country's water wheel of apprehensions. Contrary to the socialists, the Liberals speak of cutting unemployment and welfare benefits to 60 percent of minimum wage as a way of encouraging the inactive to look for work. Such talk has given rise to a League of the Elderly Party, whose platform consists of defending the country's favorable but costly pension system - and which appears poised to win as many as four seats.
``We want to increase people's freedom, but also their sense of responsibility for themselves,'' says Oussama Cherribi, a Liberal Party candidate from Amsterdam. Born in Morocco, Mr. Cherribi sees himself as an example of the ``magnificent boat of tolerance in a European sea of mounting harshness and discrimination.''
Developing his party's view that employer taxes and citizens' entitlements must be cut greatly if employment is to grow and social welfare programs and other examples of Dutch largesse are to be saved, Cherribi says: ``Our boat is already in turbulent waters. We could crash on the same rocks of decline and unrest'' that some of the Netherlands' neighbors have ``if we don't change the way we do things.''