Leading Article: Dutch bulwarks against change

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The Independent Online
TODAY'S elections in the Netherlands could be a watershed for Dutch politics in that, for the first time since the Second World War, the Christian Democrats may be excluded from government. Although the outgoing coalition government of Ruud Lubbers has left the economy in remarkably good shape, the voters seem to want a change. Even the Netherlands is not immune to the wider European rejection of ruling parties.

Nor is it spared racist politicians, who have been attracting significant levels of support from voters dismayed by high levels of immigration and disenchanted by the rise in long-term unemployment. Mainstream politicians have been put on the defensive and the Dutch have been forced to re-examine themselves and question where their country is going.

This looks surprising from the outside. As a laboratory for tolerance and consensus politics the Netherlands sets an enviable example to the rest of Europe, even if the lack of conflict often conveys an impression of dullness. This is why the turbulence has so far not destabilised the centre and seems unlikely to affect the make-up of the next government. The tradition of balanced coalitions still holds. The next one is expected to include Labour, the left-of-centre D66 and the right-wing Liberal party. The fact that parties have to work together to find consensus encourages politicians to restrain themselves when attacking their opponents. It also means that issues are debated on their merits and that pragmatism usually rules.

A revealing example is that, although euthanasia remains a criminal offence, Dutch doctors who practise it are virtually guaranteed immunity from the law if they follow a 28-point checklist showing that patients are terminally ill and repeatedly asking to die. Similarly, there are firm laws against trafficking in drugs but a blind eye is turned to the sale of soft drugs in cafes up and down the country, notwithstanding regular condemnation from the United Nations.

Attitudes of this sort, built on solid consensus, seem to form a bulwark against sharp change. Certainly, it would take far stronger buffeting to shake the country's fundamental attachment to the idea of a federal Europe. The fingerprints of the outgoing centre- left coalition government can be seen all over the Maastricht treaty, including its call for 'an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe'. One of the leading contenders to be the next prime minister is the Labour leader, Wim Kok, who was one of the chief negotiators of the treaty. On that front, too, change can be ruled out.