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He's an uncharismatic stuffed shirt who looks like Harry Potter. But he also has his bad side.

There is some sort of diplomatic row going on between the Belgian and Dutch governments. The Belgian foreign secretary, Karel de Gucht, called the Dutch Prime Minister a mix of Harry Potter and middle-class stuffed-shirtedness, a man in whom I cannot detect any trace of charisma. This scandalised the Dutch Cabinet, who called the Belgian ambassador on the carpet for a good old-fashioned flogging. It also seems to have scandalised the Belgians, or so it said on Dutch radio although the Belgians in my coterie of minions hadn't heard of the whole controversy. Then again, they gave the impression that they'd be more surprised if De Gucht ever took his foot out of his mouth.
It didn't scandalise the Dutch population nearly as much. Apparently, the popular Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf reported that 80% of those surveyed agreed with the substance of De Gucht's comments. And De Telegraaf is a right-leaning paper whose readership one would normally expect to broadly support the current government.

What can I say? Mr. Balkenende is a stuffed shirt, a goody-two-shoes without charisma. That's why we elected him. I know that we're live in the era of the short attention span, but for heaven's sake, the year 2002 isn't ancient history. I'll recap for the benefit of the crack-addled baboons who have allowed this non-item to dominate the news cycle (this includes members of the Dutch government):

In 2002, the Dutch electorate had the following choice:one insurgent, populist party whose leader, a flamboyant, shavenheaded drama queen played the anti-immigration card and who had the same effect on people around him as the fella from Asterix and the Roman Agent; one social-democratic party whose leader was a ghastly technocrat whose very demeanour told voters they could not trust him with the traditional social-democratic mission of sticking up for the little guy; one liberal party led by .....whatsisname, tall balding chap, seemed a decent bloke, played the saxophone, didn't seam to stand for anything much though; and the Christian Democrats, led by Mr. Balkenende.

Balkenende was inexperienced, and didn't really look like a leader, but at the same time, he came across as sincere about the Christian-inspired policies he stood for and he had a sense of humour about his looks. People forget that now, but back then, on the stump, he was a guy who could laugh at himself, and he actucely used the Harry Potter comparison to increase his profile. Compared to the other candidates, he was safe and even likeable.

Mr. Fortuyn, the populist, drew many votes from the rudderless liberal party, who under a previous leader had won much support with a similar nationalist populism. He also drew a lot of support from the traditional base of the Labour party, because he essentially promised to stick up for the little guy by sticking it to the immigrants. He didn't draw a lot of votes from the Christian-Democratic voter base, who basically tut-tutted this new upstart, and a week before the election, there were still a lot of undecided voters. The Tuesday before the election, he seemed set to become the new Prime Minister. That day, he was shot dead by an animal rights activist. It still sounds bizarre.

The reaction to Fortuyn's death can be summed up as mass hysteria, especially among the man's supporters. Most of them were galvanised into voting for the dead guy anyway, although some decided there and then that they couldn't be bothered. The mainstream left and right in the form of the Labour Party and the Liberal Party were bled dry. The party that made a last-minute spurt and became the largest parliamentary group, though, was the Christian Democratic Appeal. Enough people concluded that all that distasteful getting shot dead was what you'd get from being flamboyant and controversial at people, and that what the country needed was a solid, dependable sort of guy who wouldn't do anything crazy. Of course, once he became the Prime Minister Presumptive, Balkenende had little choice but to form a coalition with Fortuyn's acolites anyway, and never let it be said that a Christian Democrat can't accept and even embrace the political realities of the day.

Don't take my word for any of the above, by the way. My memory is fallible. But at least I remember something along these lines happening, which is more than I can say for some people in the government and the media.

Fast forward three years, and Balkenende and his government are deeply unpopular and have justifiably taken much of the blame for the Dutch "no" vote in the referendum on the European Constitution. The reason for that isn't Balkenende's lack of charisma but the substance of his government's policies. So can we please go back to talking about how his cabinet's economic policy is stifling economic growth? The paucity of even half-way decent policy ideas coming from the Binnenhof? The substitution of Moral Values verbiage and fundamentalist-pleasing trial balloons for actual policy ideas? The tough talk over immigration masking institutional paralysis and inflexibility? We've got a worthless, useless government here, and bickering over the Prime Minister's lack of pizzazz just distracts us from the real issues.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on June 7, 2005 9:16 PM.

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