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If I can just give to the world more than I take from it, I will be a very happy man. For there is no greater joy in life than to give. Motto : Live, Laugh and Love. You can follow me on Twitter too . My handle is @Raja_Sw.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Dutch Elections 2010 - how right are the results?

Ok, something different this time. Instead of my usual blabbering about an incident from the past or an imaginary husband-wife conversation, I want to talk about something very current and real.

The Netherlands, where I live. Or Holland, as it is more popularly known around the world. Some Dutch people you meet will correct you if you call the country Holland. For them, Holland is a part of the Netherlands – it represents the two provinces, North and South Holland, in the west of the country. And they are technically right. But somehow, for the whole world, the name Holland has stuck as a colloquial name to represent the country. So, for the rest of this article, I am going to take the liberty of also using this name. Much easier than saying “the Netherlands” all the time. :-)

Anyway, the reason I want to talk about Holland today is that we had a rather significant event taking place in our country a couple of days ago, on the 9th of June 2010.

It was the day of elections for the “Tweede Kamer”. The equivalent of the “House of Commons” in England or the Lok Sabha in India.

I am not sure many people around the world were even aware of this. Which is understandable. Holland is just “a dot” on a map of the world. Whenever anybody talks about Europe, they talk about Germany, France, the UK (though I am not sure they want to identify with Europe ;-) ), Italy and Spain. These are the biggies – and though recently people have realized (for all the wrong reasons) that Greece belongs to Europe (and for that matter, Iceland too) – it is invariably the big five that dominate discussions about Europe.

Fair enough. I have no problem whatsoever with this. Even when, on the 20th of February this year, the Dutch Cabinet fell over the Afghanistan debate, there was just a 2 or 3-line mention in the inner pages (actually just on the one page titled “World News”) in the Times of India, the most popular daily newspaper in India. I happened to be in India at that time – and while the news came to me as a shock, it did not surprise me that it earned no more than an inner-page mention.

However blissfully ignorant – or even uncaring - the rest of the world may be about these elections in Holland, their significance for the resident Dutch person must not be underestimated. Especially given the outcome of the elections.

I do not claim to know a whole lot about Dutch politics and I will therefore not comment about things I am not competent to talk about. But politics has always interested me as a subject – ever since I was a young boy and a state of Emergency was declared in India in 1975, followed by a national election in March 1977 where the ruling, supposedly “impregnable” Congress party was trounced. These were significant events at that time in the country and, being at an impressionable age, I got quite fascinated by the whole thing.

Here in Holland, even with my limited understanding of the political history of the country and limited knowledge of the system, I have enjoyed listening to discussions about issues, party positions on issues, coalition formations and the like. Whether it is the Christian Democrats (CDA), or the Labour Party (the PvdA), or the socialists (VVD) or any of the “smaller” parties, it has always been interesting to understand ideologies and coalition politics.

Recently when the UK was forced into a coalition government for the first time in decades, there was huge excitement in the country and media about how this would all work and whether it would work at all. I, for one, could not help smiling because “coalition government” is all that I have seen in Holland whether it was Ruud Lubbers as PM (CDA-led coalition) or Wim Kok as PM (Pvda-led coalition) or JP Balkenende (again CDA-led coalition).

And not just me, I doubt if there are (m)any Dutch persons who have seen a single-party majority in their lifetimes. That has just become a way of life here, what with the increasing number of parties and the diverse points of view amongst the public.

Coming back to these elections, the most significant aspect of the verdict of the people is , without doubt, the mandate given to the far right-wing party, the PVV, led by the fiery Geert Wilders.

This party, till now a fledgling party in national politics but improving its position in every voting round, has won 24 seats this time !

Just behind the liberal socialists VVD (31) and the “Labour Party” PvdA (30). The “ruling” CDA has come crashing down from 41 seats to 21.

This means that whatever coalition is formed, the PVV just cannot be ignored. For, whether one agrees with the party or not, in a democracy the results reflect the voice of the people. And a fair number of the Dutch voting public has given the PVV a clear thumbs-up.

Now why is this so significant?

Because of what the PVV stands for, in the eyes of the Dutch public.

The PVV (Partij voor de Vrijheid – “Party for Freedom”), formed in 2005, is best-known as the party that has a hardline stance on Islam and all things associated with it. From Turkey joining the EU, to Muslim women wearing burqas or even hijaabs, to mosques in Holland, to Islamic education, to immigration from non-western countries - the PVV has always made it abundantly clear that it disapproves of each of these initiatives. In particular, it disapproves of Holland being home to Islamic practices as it feels that immigrants need to integrate with local (non-Islamic) culture.

Obviously the party has a view on other subjects too but invariably its image is associated with its views on Islam in general, and Muslims in Holland in particular.

To be absolutely fair to the PVV,(and I do want to be balanced in my assessment here), its concerns about immigration are not entirely unjustified.

Holland has easily the highest density of population amongst all European countries (not counting the likes of Monaco and the Vatican). In fact, its density of population is amongst the highest in the world. So it is but natural that immigration policy needs to consider resources to support the increasing population.
Again, to be fair to the PVV, their point about integration with the local culture is a fair one. If you live in a country it is only fair that you respect local culture too.

On both the above points, I see their point.

But I have strong reservations about how they approach these issues of immigration and integration. It seems almost like a one-point anti-Muslim agenda that they are pushing into Dutch society.

And THAT is what I have an issue with.

Let’s face it – we live in such a global world now that almost every country has a hue of multiple nationalities that make up its landscape. Maybe some countries more than others, but this is an undeniable trend of liberalization and globalization and is only likely to increase in the years to come.

It is not happening only in tiny Holland – it is happening all over the world.

In such a situation, the one quality a country needs to have is, in my opinion, inclusiveness.

This is not to deny that each country has its own unique culture, language, customs and all those things that make it special. Rather, it is to accept that people with a different culture, language and customs can be positive contributors to this country’s society and economy and therefore live side-by-side with others of this country.

The keyword in such co-existence is respect. Where there is mutual respect for each person’s culture and customs, where there is acceptance and tolerance in society, there is a sense of community. There should be no need to fear a loss of identity since there is no threat to such identity.

Obviously this works both ways. The host nation’s population will be tolerant of immigrants only if the immigrants themselves are respectful towards, and grateful for, the graciousness of the host.

I agree that this sounds theoretical but that is exactly it – and also the way it has worked in the USA for over two hundred years.

The USA, after the native Indians, has been an immigrant nation for this entire period (and continues to be so). Today they are all Americans but they are of Italian-origin, German-origin, Polish-origin, Indian-origin and so on. They live side-by-side, each one bringing his/her own culture and skills into the US. Second- and third-generation Americans are usually Americans first - yet their ethnic roots provide that cultural diversity that makes for a multi-cultural society.

I am not suggesting that Holland (or for that matter, any other country) could or should adopt this model. The histories involved are very different.

But I do think, as times change, societies need to recognize trends in migration and learn to cope with it instead of attempting to shut it out. Burying one’s head in the sand does not make it go away. And Holland has always been in the forefront of globalization – the Dutch travelled the seas well and discovered new lands for trade well before most of the rest of the world.

Coming to a more practical discussion, what then are the key issues here? Ask the common man or woman on the streets of Holland.

Unless he or she has been brainwashed by the politicians and/or the media, the answer you are likely to get is more likely to be about “real” things – things that matter to each individual.

The economy. jobs, healthcare, education, crime rates. These are challenging times for Holland and for Europe in general. And these are the things that actually matter more on a daily basis to the common man than something like “integration”.

On the subject of integration, and speaking a little bit for myself now, to be honest, I have never seen a lady in a burqa in Holland so I do not understand the fuss about burqas. But even if we talk about a lady with a hijab, it is her personal or religious choice. As long as she conducts herself in society like any other respectable lady, why should it matter? I, for one, don't see a problem.

For those religious-minded, who would like to visit a place of worship for their prayers, whether that place is a church or a mosque or a temple, same story. I could not care less as long as the person does not interfere with others' beliefs.

Let’s talk about crime now. And this is where it gets a little more real and pretty sensitive.

In Holland, one of the biggest drivers for anti-Muslim sentiment is the perception that most of the crime in the country is due to immigrants from Islamic countries, more specifically Morocco (and to a lesser extent, Turkey).

So, building on this perception, the PVV has taken it a notch higher, painting everybody with the same brush and embarking on its anti-Islamic rhetoric, using this as a reason.

I am not going to judge one community or the other but I do know one of the basic rules in dealing with people is to look at the act and not judge the person.

Let’s just say, even hypothetically, that out of 10 crimes committed, 5 are by people of Moroccan origin. (Just an example, absolutely no offence meant to the Moroccan community. Just substitute "Moroccan" for "Indian" if you like).

What does that mean ?

Well, first of all, those who committed those 10 crimes need to be brought to book. And it just so happens that 5 of them are of Moroccan origin – it would make sense to try to figure out what caused them to commit the crime. Is there a systemic weakness, whether in their upbringing or education or financial circumstances or other environmental aspects that has led them down this path. Or are they isolated cases?

It most certainly does not mean that “people of Moroccan origin are criminals” and therefore need to be shut out of society.

Such a thought process amounts to nothing but an insult to decent Moroccan-origin members in society who are painted with this brush.

It does not stop here. This argument is then taken to the next ridiculous level. So it then gets into “this is all because they do not integrate with society”.

To this, is conveniently added as a logical next step “See, the women still wear hijabs”.

All this while the crux of the issue is, or should be, crime and resolving it. Not whether somebody wears a hijab or visits a mosque.

By all means, punish the crime. And then, whether it is a Moroccan-origin or a Dutch-origin or an Indian-origin person, it should not matter. I am sure no community will mind if the trouble-makers in the community are given appropriate punishment as per the law of the country.

But do not generalize and pass community or religion-based pronouncements.

That is playing with fire and can only polarize society further. Already Dutch society is getting fragmented along extremely undesirable ethnic and religious lines thanks to heightened rhetoric over the last few years.

One of the fallouts of this rhetoric and fragmentation in society is the increase in terrorism-related activities reported in Holland. So far it is thankfully still on a very small scale (ideally this should be zero of course).

But if the rhetoric increases now – and is accompanied by acts that are seen as unfair to a community - there is every reason to expect a backlash in the form of increased terrorism efforts.

And that is absolutely the last thing a society needs.

That is the reason most people talk of peaceful co-existence. Lashing out at a community may give a party some brownie points at the election sweepstakes, especially in times of economic hardship, but, at best, it is only short-term electoral gain.

In the longer-term, it is nothing but debilitating.

There are enough examples in the world to prove this point. Divisions in society can run deep and for generations.

I hope Mr. Wilders and his PVV party realize this. I trust they are intelligent people and have therefore been entrusted with the job (if only in a coalition) of getting the country back on track.

So my request to them (and of course the VVD and the PvDA as the bigger parties) would be to just concentrate on the bread-and-butter issues.

The economy, budget deficit, jobs, healthcare, education, crime.

The coalition will finally be judged by the Dutch public on these – and not on topics like “immigration” and “integration”. I hope.

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