New Dutch coalition seeks to downplay populists’ influence

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Fearing an international backlash against the Netherlands for having a government that depends on the support of an outspoken anti-Islam party, the new Dutch minority coalition government is trying to downplay the influence of Geert Wilders' right-wing populist party PVV.

When the leaders of the three parties in the coalition talks – liberals VVD, Christian democratic party CDA and the PVV – emerged in the Hague on Tuesday after 111 days of coalition talks behind closed doors, they indicated that their coalition should be seen as a "liberal-confessional" one.

In discussing naming the cabinet, not a single reference was made to the right-wing populist ideology of Wilders' party PVV.

The official name of the government will be the 'Rutte-Verhagen' government, said 43-year old Mark Rutte, who now is set to become the new Dutch prime minister.

CDA leader Maxime Verhagen, who also has been the Netherlands’ foreign minister in recent years, will be named deputy prime minister.

Technically, VVD and CDA are right to say that Wilders is not part of the new Dutch government. PVV will not supply any ministers, nor will it have a seat at the cabinet table, and Geert Wilders will not become deputy prime minister. But without his support, the new Dutch government would not have been able to form.

VVD and CDA together only hold 52 seats of the 150 in the lower house of the Dutch parliament. Wilders' PVV won 24 seats in parliamentary elections that took place in May. Together, they have a marginal majority of only 76 seats. That means that Wilders' support for the coalition is essential for the survival of the VVD-CDA minority cabinet.

"This is an historic day," Wilders told journalists as he emerged from the meeting. "Who would have thought that PVV, which only had one seat in parliament a few years ago, would ever have so much influence? This is a good day for the Netherlands."

Wilders said he had agreed to all points adopted in the coalition agreement. He pledged not to bring down the Rutte-Verhagen government on these agreed issues.

The Dutch parliamentary vote in May saw a surge in popularity for Wilders' PVV party, reflecting voters' frustration with the political establishment.

Wilders campaigned mostly on a anti-Islam ticket, pledging to stop immigration from Muslim countries and to consider introducing a special 'tax' for Muslim women wearing headscarfs. He combined this view with social-liberal issues, such as calls to increase spending on education.

As for the European Union, Wilders has positioned himself as an outspoken Eurosceptic. His PVV party holds five seats in the European Parliament. Regarding European integration, CDA leader Verhagen also has a conservative track record, often blocking ministerial European Council decisions on Serbia's prospects for EU membership.

Rutte's VVD is one of two Dutch parties in the liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament, together with D66, which has a less conservative, social-liberal agenda.

It is not yet clear how these positions will be reflected in the coalition accord. Details of the deal will emerge in the coming days, ahead of the CDA party conference on Saturday (2 October), which is to sign off on the pact. Once the CDA party has approved the plan, names for the ministerial posts can be announced.

CDA is internally divided over the involvement of Wilders' PVV, but it is generally expected that there will be a majority in favour of the pact. The CDA group in the lower house of the Dutch parliament will discuss the accord today.

If the CDA conference throws its weight behind the coalition agreement, then a full new government will likely be named in the second half of October. If it does not, then Rutte will have to start all over again and consider other political alliances.

Shortly after the elections, Rutte considered alternative coalitions, such as one that included VVD with the social democratic PvdA party and a handful of left and centre-left parties. Such a coalition did not win sufficient support.

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