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Dutch divide highlights drift to right

By Simon Hooper for CNN
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(CNN) -- Perhaps tolerance has its limits, even in the famously liberal Netherlands. On Wednesday an attempt to roll and smoke the world's biggest-ever joint was abandoned after organizers realized their record bid contravened Dutch drugs laws.

Although Amsterdam may be famed for its "relaxed" coffee shops and the purchase and consumption of cannabis for personal use is tolerated by authorities, the prospect of a 1.5-meter long spliff containing 500 grams of the drug proved too strong even for Dutch tastes.

Wednesday's election in the Netherlands provided more serious evidence that the nation's instincts are perhaps more conservative than sometimes credited.

Despite a strong campaign by the opposition Labor party, which had focused on economic and welfare issues, and substantial gains on the left for the Socialists, Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenede's center-right Christian Democrat party gained the most seats in parliament, making it the likely foundation for a new coalition government.

Preliminary results showed the Christian Democrats holding 41 seats out of 150, with Labor claiming 32 seats and the Socialists enjoying the largest gains, boosting their total from eight seats to 26.

For the government's supporters that result reflects a vindication of four years in power in which the center of Dutch politics has slipped rightwards amid growing concerns over immigration and a hardening of attitudes towards the country's Muslim minority.

While admitting that the "complicated" results -- in which no combination of parties on either right or left could claim an overall majority -- would make the process of constructing a new coalition "tough going," Balkenede pledged to "build on the foundation" of his previous term.

"The effort of four years of struggle has been rewarded and that makes me proud," he told cheering supporters. "We went for gold and we got gold. Who would have thought one year ago, six months ago, that we could achieve this."

Under Balkenede's leadership, the Netherlands has already pushed through some of the toughest entry and integration laws in Europe, replacing traditional Dutch multi-culturism with pro-integration policies, such as obligatory language lessons for non-Dutch speaking immigrants.

As a foretaste of what could be expected from another term, the government on Friday announced plans to ban Muslim women from wearing burqas and other veils in public, making the Netherlands the first country in Europe to consider such a move.

Two violent deaths have symbolized the Dutch drift to the right. In the run-up to the 2002 elections, anti-immigration populist politician Pim Fortuyn was shot dead by an animal rights activist.

Fortuyn's LPF party went on to win 26 parliamentary seats and briefly formed part of Balkenede's first coalition -- although the coalition collapsed within a year with fresh elections called.

And in 2004 filmmaker Theo van Gogh was shot and stabbed by a Muslim radical in retaliation for the release of his film "Submission," which dealt with violence against women in Muslim societies, sparking further calls for Muslims to be fully integrated into Dutch society -- rather than tolerated on its fringes.

While Wednesday's vote marked the electoral death of Fortuyn's LPF, which failed to win a single seat according to preliminary results, and an apparent decline in support for far right parties, many analysts say that is because their policies, once considered too extreme for the mainstream, have now been appropriated by consensus by more respectable parties and politicians.

For instance, the government's proposed burqa ban was initially proposed by the anti-immigration candidate Geert Wilders, considered by many to be Fortuyn's proper political heir, more than a year ago.

Wilder's Party For Freedom picked up eight seats on Wednesday after calling for further limits on immigration and warning of a "tsunami of Islamization" sweeping through the Netherlands.

For some the presence of such inflammatory comments amid the wider political debate is a sign of a healthy culture of free speech in a thriving democracy.

But in a country in which anti-immigration rhetoric is increasingly not just tolerated but listened to, the modern realities of Dutch politics suggest a nation still far from at ease with its own changing identity.


Jan Peter Balkenende and his wife Bianca celebrate the Christian Democrats' success in Wednesday's vote.

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