- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 23, 2003

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands, Jan. 23 (UPI) — Europe's beleaguered left has a bright new star in its political firmament. His name is Wouter Bos. You may not heard of him yet, but chances are that in the coming years the new leader of the Dutch Labor Party will emerge as one of the old continent's most stellar political performers.

Although Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's Christian Democrats narrowly beat the Labor Party in Wednesday's general election, most pundits believe it was Bos who emerged as the clear victor from the campaign.

"Bos wins, Balkenende decides," was the headline in the Volkskrant newspaper Thursday. It is difficult to argue with the Dutch daily's conclusion.

Less than a month ago, when the Netherlands' second election campaign in a year began in earnest, Labor, with 23 seats, was the fourth-largest grouping in Parliament.

Opinion polls showed that it was unlikely to improve greatly on its disastrous May 2001 showing and pundits predicted that Balkenende was cruising for a comfortable victory together with his Liberal allies.

Then along came Bos.

Elected party leader in December, the charismatic 39-year-old had some personal business to take care of before he could devote himself fully to politics.

On Dec.21, he got married and spent a week honeymooning in New York before returning to spearhead one of the greatest comebacks in Dutch — or European — political history.

Sensing that the Dutch electorate were tired of traditional politicians and their ways, Bos threw away his tie, told voters he had no interest in becoming prime minister — a promise he kept by nominating Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen for the post days before the poll — and trounced his rivals in a series of lively television debates.

The media sat up and took notice, comparing him to former U.S. President John F. Kennedy and British premier Tony Blair.

It is not much of an exaggeration. Youthful, relaxed, personable and telegenic, Bos certainly looks the part. He also sounds it with his quick-wit, cheeky put-downs and ability to think outside the ideological box.

But more important than the media praise was the public support the novice politician received — partly due to his uncharacteristically tough stand on security and immigration but also because the former Shell manager was trusted by voters to breathe new life into Holland's spluttering economy.

Labor voters, who briefly flirted with the populist phenomena of Pim Fortuyn last year, returned to the party in droves Wednesday, giving the left an odds-on chance of forming the next government with the Christian Democrats.

Former Labor premier Wim Kok, whose resignation in January 2001 kick-started Holland's "annus horribilis," said the famously tolerant country had experienced a "political earthquake."

"The Labor Party is back," Kok told cheering party staffers in Amsterdam's Escape nightclub late Wednesday as news filtered through that the grouping had upped its number of seats to 42.

But the grand old man of Dutch politics was just the warm-up act for the party's new hero. Arriving to the strains of U2's rock anthem "Beautiful Day," Bos punched the air, threw bunches of red roses into the ecstatic crowd and pledged to continue the fight for a progressive government.

The party faithful went wild, chanting "Wouter, Wouter, Wouter" and mobbing the open-shirted leader like a pop idol before dancing into the night.

It is easy to see why the party is so grateful. Banished to the political wilderness less than eight months ago after almost a decade in power, Labor now stands a fair-to-middling chance of entering government again.

But for Bos personally, the result is even more of a dream-come-true. Having ruled himself out of government office, the ambassador's son will be at liberty to attack the right from his post as parliamentary leader without having to take any of the blame for the coalition's failures.

"Balkenende must be terribly worried about the prospect of Bos being in parliament with his hands free, having effectively lost the election campaign to Bos," says Michiel van Hulten, a Dutch member of the European Parliament.

Political pundits expect the former junior finance minister to reap the rewards in four years time, or whenever the next act of the Netherlands' increasingly exciting political drama is played out.

Until then, Bos would do well to bear in mind that after "It's a beautiful day," the next line of U2's smash-hit song is: "Don't let it get away."

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