A chill wind is blowing through Europe," said Dutch Labor Party leader Ad Melkert in his resignation speech before a packed house of party members at Amsterdam's Paradiso club. He should know: his party lost half its seats and was turfed out of government in last week's parliamentary elections. The bad weather he described was, of course, the anti-immigration sentiment that helped fuel the success of the List Pim Fortuyn (LPF), which gained 26 seats in parliament and now looks set to be part of the next Dutch coalition. Melkert was hardly alone in suggesting that the strong showing of the populist right augured a radical overhaul of Dutch consensus politics.
For now, though, that cold wind seems to blow hardest for parties on the moderate left, the social democrats. The moderate right seems to be doing quite well, thank you, partly because it is increasingly willing to enter coalitions with the kind of populist partners any good centrist would have spurned 10 years ago. Despite the dramatic entrance into parliament of the murdered Fortuyn's followers, under the guidance of newly elected leader Mat Herben, the big winners of last week's elections were the staid Christian Democrats (CDA). That party and its precursors have been at the core of most ruling coalitions in the Netherlands since World War II, and its profile isn't particularly conservative: on most economic issues, the right-liberal vvd, the Labor Party's chief coalition partner for the past eight years, is more right-wing.
CDA leader Jan Peter Balkenende, 46, the most likely Prime Minister of the next Dutch government, has already made it clear that he's not going to preside over a revolution. He noted pointedly last week that if the lpf is to participate in a coalition, it would have to distance itself from its late leader's comment about Islam being a "backward culture" and moderate its hardline positions against both immigration and the Dutch health disability scheme. Yet the Fortuyn crowd will surely put their own stamp on any coalition agreement.
A government with a strong right profile ought to afford Dutch social democrats the chance to carve out a clearer self-image in opposition. But they don't seem to be in a hurry to do so. After an appeal to decorum and gender equality, Jeltje Van Nieuwenhoven, 58, until now the president of the Dutch parliament, was elected the Labor Party's new leader. Out of parliament altogether are younger politicians, and consigned to the wings are figures like Wouter Bos, 38, who presided over the outgoing government's tax policies in the Finance Ministry and would clearly like to take the party on a more centrist course. "Anybody who thinks the future is one of left versus right has got it wrong," he says. "We lost because we weren't clear about what we wanted to do on privatization, on defense, on social security." Perhaps as soon as next fall, he or another modernizer will get a chance to lead the party. When that time comes, the Labor Party would do well to remember some advice from Charles Grant, director of London's Centre for European Reform: "If the economy is going right, worry about other things, like immigration and the presentation of your candidates."
The Labor Party can also take some comfort in the fact that opposition can be salutary against a right-far right coalition. Austria's Social Democrats, for example, have been out of power since 2000, when the conservative People's Party entered its taboo-breaking coalition with Jörg Haider's Freedom Party. "Our experience is that they can't keep their promises," says the Social Democrats' leader Alfred Gusenbauer. "Unemployment climbs, social assistance gets cut, and the very people who voted them in are the ones who suffer the most." Easy criticism is a poor substitute for real power, though, and to regain that the Labor Party and Europe's social democrats as a whole will have to do some tough thinking. "It doesn't work just to be neo-liberals with a social garnish," says Gusenbauer.
Instead, the moderate left has to learn to address the fundamental uncertainty Europeans feel about globalization and the aftermath of Sept. 11. The Dutch are willing to see if the right can do a better job of that, and polls currently suggest that the French and Germans may be of similar mind. If they fail, they'll get turned out as unceremoniously as the Dutch Labor Party was last week and an even colder wind will be blowing right in their faces.