Amsterdam, The Netherlands—On January 23, Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister and leader of the center-right Liberal Party (VVD), wrote a 500-word letter “to all Dutch people” that appeared as a full-page ad in the country’s major newspapers.
“By far the most of us are of good will,” Rutte wrote. “We work hard, help each other, and think the Netherlands are pretty neat. But we do worry a lot about how we are treating each other. Sometimes it seems like no one acts normally any more.… We become increasingly uncomfortable when people take advantage of our freedom to ruin things here, whereas they came to this country precisely because of its freedom.… People who refuse to adapt, criticize our customs, and reject our values. Who harass gays, yell at women in short skirts, or call regular Dutch people racists. I completely understand that people would think: ‘If you reject our country so fundamentally, I’d prefer you’d leave.’ Because I feel the same way. Act normally, or get out.”
Behind the appeal to common decency, the message was clear: “We” are the real Dutch; those “people” are not; and anyone who can’t behave “normally,” in the Dutch way, is not welcome in the Netherlands. As critics were quick to point out, Rutte’s letter took for granted the widespread but unfounded notion that crime and public misbehavior are on the rise and that immigrants, particularly Muslims, are undermining a Dutch tradition of peaceful, tolerant coexistence.
The public letter was a shrewd attempt on Rutte’s part to fend off Geert Wilders, the right-wing populist whose Party for Freedom (PVV) is poised to win the Dutch parliamentary elections on March 15. Polls predict that Wilders—who wants to leave the European Union, “de-Islamicize” the Netherlands by putting a ban on Muslim immigrants and refugees, lower taxes, abolish public broadcasting, and dramatically increase military spending—will garner close to 20 percent of the vote, corresponding to 30 deputies in the 150-seat Parliament. Rutte’s own party will likely end up in second place, with around 16 percent of the ballots.
Meanwhile, the Labor Party (PvdA), the longstanding bastion of Dutch social democracy that is currently governing in a coalition with the VVD, is paying a heavy price for its support of EU-imposed austerity—ruthlessly enforced from Brussels by the PvdA’s own finance minister, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who is also president of the Eurogroup. The PvdA’s constituency clearly finds this hard to swallow. In March, the party’s electoral share is predicted to shrink to 8 percent, down from 20 percent in 2012—landing the party in sixth place overall, a couple of percentage points behind three other parties on the left: the liberal democrats (D66), the Green Left (GroenLinks), and the Socialist Party (SP).