To hold off the right, Dutch coalition partly embraces it

New government goes for more conservative policies on immigration and national identity

THE HAGUE (Netherlands) • The hard-fought defeat of the extreme right in Dutch parliamentary elections earlier this year has led one of the most progressive countries in Europe to embrace more conservative policies on immigration and national identity as a way to fend off challenges from the right and forge a governing coalition.

The new government, led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte, was sworn in on Thursday after a record-breaking seven months of negotiations.

It includes social conservatives from two Christian parties, a large pro-business bloc and a party with socially liberal credentials.

The coalition holds power by just a one-vote margin, which suggests that the political stability of the Netherlands depends on the next four years being predictable, according to political scientists, consultants and former members of Parliament.

If there is a national emergency, a financial downturn or some other unforeseeable event, it is far from clear that the coalition can hold, since little binds the parties together but a desire to have a say in governing - and to keep the extreme-right Party for Freedom, led by anti-immigrant populist Geert Wilders, out of power.

"Every party got a few points in," said Mr Ronald Kroeze, a political scientist and historian at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. "But there's no underlying vision."

The Netherlands' move to the right is in keeping with a trend across Europe, as mainstream conservative and centre-left forces unite to try to keep extreme-right parties from gaining the levers of power.

The Netherlands' move to the right is in keeping with a trend across Europe, as mainstream conservative and centre-left forces unite to try to keep extreme-right parties from gaining the levers of power.

The new Dutch coalition is dominated by Mr Rutte's business-friendly People's Party for Freedom and Democracy and a Christian party that has become increasingly nationalist, but it also includes a sizeable centre-left party and a smaller Christian party that represents a mostly rural constituency.

The coalition has embraced some of the far right's ideas, such as stronger limits on immigration and an increased focus on inculcating Dutch identity. But it is also committed to lowering taxes for business and the middle class and increasing the value-added tax to 9 per cent from 6 per cent, which will hit the poor hardest - measures that Mr Wilders has rejected because they are likely to have an outsized impact on working-class voters.

And in a clear rejection of Mr Wilders' opposition to the European Union, the new coalition describes the Netherlands as "inseparable" from the bloc.

The deal was further cemented by doling out ministries to every party in the coalition.

Whether such an approach will last is not clear, said Mr Ton Elias, a former member of the leadership of Mr Rutte's party. "It could last for the four years or it could fall down like a pudding," he said.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 28, 2017, with the headline 'To hold off the right, Dutch coalition partly embraces it'. Print Edition | Subscribe