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Center-right team to lead Dutch

Anti-Islam party wins concessions as impasse ends

- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 14, 2010

A four-month political impasse ended in the Netherlands on Thursday, as the country's first postwar minority government took office promising deep budget cuts and tightened immigration rules.

The new prime minister, Mark Rutte of the pro-market Liberal Party, will lead a coalition with the Christian Democratic Appeal, another center-right party. But the two parties, short of a majority, will rely on support in the lower house of parliament from anti-Islam firebrand Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom.

Mr. Wilders is on trial in Amsterdam for "inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims," who constitute an estimated 5 percent of the Dutch population. While he could not win support for his more radical platform items — a Koran ban, a head-scarf tax — Mr. Wilders managed to extract a number of concessions from the Liberals and Christian Democrats, including a promise to ban the burqa and to tighten the country's historically lax immigration policy.

"It is absolutely necessary that we in the Netherlands tighten the immigration rules," Mr. Rutte said at a news conference Thursday after being sworn in by Queen Beatrix.

But he said that, unlike Mr. Wilders, "I am not concerned with Islam," noting that the Party for Freedom's anti-Islam agenda is "the reason [it] is not in the government."

Mr. Wilders won big in the country's June 9 elections, upping his party's seat count from nine to 24 — three more than former Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's Christian Democrats, whose 2006 landslide had given them 41 seats. Mr. Rutte's Liberals won 31, edging out the Labor Party's 30.

The Christian Democrats initially refused to enter talks with Mr. Wilders, calling him a threat to the Dutch tradition of tolerance, and Mr. Rutte was forced to pursue weeks of fruitless negotiations with Labor and two smaller left-wing parties.

After those talks collapsed over the budget, a right-wing minority government emerged as the most viable option, giving Mr. Rutte a de facto parliamentary majority — 76 out of 150 seats — while allowing Mr. Wilders to continue his anti-Islam campaign outside the confines of the government.

Mr. Rutte managed to secure the support of Mr. Wilders, who leans left on economic issues, for $25 billion in budget cuts. The Liberals' election victory owed a great deal to the party's bold promise to balance the budget over four years.

The previous government, headed by the Christian Democrats and Labor, collapsed in February after Labor resigned when Mr. Balkenende — at the behest of President Obama and NATO — sought to extend the deployment of Dutch troops in Afghanistan beyond 2010.

Mr. Balkenende previously had promised that the 1,950-strong contingent, whose mission already had been extended two years, would come home before September.

The last troops ended up leaving Aug. 1, making the Netherlands the first NATO member to leave Afghanistan.

Though he did not dispatch Dutch troops to Iraq until after the invasion, Mr. Balkenende also bucked the leaders of France and Germany in early 2003 by joining President George W. Bush's "coalition of the willing."

Having served more than eight years at the head of four governments, Mr. Balkenende said he left the prime minister's office "with a little sadness" but pledged support for Mr. Rutte and his program.

"I wish him all the best," he said. "These are difficult times and difficult measures need to be taken."

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