Will the real liberal please stand up

Mark Rutte (left) and Alexander Pechtold during a recent debate.

By Emilie van Outeren

What makes a liberal? The definition differs widely on the two opposite sides of the Atlantic, but even within the tiny Netherlands, political parties bicker over who is really entitled to use the term.

"The question isn't so much which party is, strictly speaking, the most liberal. What matters is which party can best safeguard our free democratic society," wrote Mark Rutte, the leader of the VVD party, in his Op-Ed in NRC Handelsblad on Monday. The paper invited Rutte, whose party is usually referred to as right-wing liberal, and Alexander Pechtold, the leader of D66, which is usually described as left-wing liberal, to write arguments in defence of their versions of liberalism. But although Rutte believes more is at stake than who can claim the definition, 'liberal' and 'liberal values' are popping up regularly in the Dutch political discourse these days. With parliamentary elections just one week away, these two liberals clash on what their ideology stands for and what it should mean for the Netherlands, in respect to issues ranging from austerity measures to environmental policies and whether these should be dealt with by a big or small government.

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The meaning of the word liberal has developed differently in Europe than it has in North America. In the United States, the term is commonly associated with left-wing progressive movements. In the Netherlands, liberalism has traditionally been one of the three forces that made up the political landscape, with social democrats on the left, Christian democrats in the centre and liberals on the right. But the Dutch multiparty parliament is now more fractured than ever and the old left-right classification no longer holds up. Meanwhile, liberalism -- no matter how it is defined -- is on the rise. Some polls predict Mark Rutte's VVD, which now holds 22 of the 150 seats in parliament, will garner 38 seats next week. Pechtold's D66, which now only has 3 delegates in parliament, looks set to win 10 seats.

Clean up the financial mess

Pechtold begins his Monday Op-Ed by stressing where D66 and VVD see eye to eye. According to Pechtold, both parties believe in, "individuals, free from coercion by church, class or state, who take responsibility for their own actions". But he goes on to say that the two parties differ fundamentally on how this assumption relates to three particular issues: caring for the vulnerable, the paradox of freedom and security and the concern for the environment. D66's concerns in these areas are costly, and that is why Rutte accuses other politicians, including Pechtold, of wanting to overtax citizens. "A party that wants to increase the burden on the taxpayer now, cannot call itself liberal," Rutte writes.

The argument should be seen in the context of a cutthroat election campaign underway in the Netherlands, where politicians from a dozen parties are trying to score off each other. The parliamentary election has become very focused on the economy and, as the polls show, the liberals are widely trusted to best clean up the financial mess caused by the gaping budget deficit and ballooning national debt. Despite the global crisis largely being blamed on financial liberalisation, voters seem to have lost even more faith in the Christian democrats and Labour party, which ruled the country in the past three years.

The VVD, in particuar, has announced stringent austerity measures. The VVD doesn't shy away from making fundamental choices about society, the economy and the role of the government, writes Rutte, so as, ultimately, to emerge stronger from this crisis. "The VVD wants a small, strong state that focuses on its core tasks: education, safety, infrastructure and healthcare." At the same time, the party wants to tackle government spending and lower the national debt, without raising taxes, which Rutte claims are high enough in the Netherlands.

Checks and balances

This is where Pechtold accuses him of ruthlessly disregarding the needs of underprivileged people. Rutte has come under fire after a current affairs TV programme calculated that the VVD plans would financially hurt a mother of three on welfare and a family with a disabled daughter since the party proposes to cut welfare and compensation for medical expenses. Rutte denied the accusations on the show. But Pechtold attacks him for wanting to make the weakest in society pay for the crisis.

The episode doesn't seem to have affected Rutte's standing with the electorate. His VVD is still seen as the can-do party, also when it comes to issues of safety and immigration, an issue on which it is competing for voters with Geert Wilders. In his Op-Ed, Rutte shows his tough side. "Everyone who comes to our country to contribute is welcome. But we need to put a stop to the influx of disadvantaged migrants who come here only to end up dependent on social security. The VVD wants to change antiquated European conventions that stand in the way."

This is where Pechtold again attacks Rutte for not being liberal, because the VVD continuously argues for "wider jurisdiction, more data collection and longer retention of data," Pechtold writes. Privacy is a big part of freedom, according to Pechtold, and violations thereof are only acceptable when they actually lead to greater security and checks and balances are anchored into law. Pechtold says the government is responsible for more than just safety and public order and does not believe less government is always better. "The government needs to offer services where fairness is more important than efficiency, such as education and healthcare."

'A liberal nightmare'

At the end of his Op-Ed, Pechtold compares the Dutch political set-up to that of the UK. "It is no coincidence that D66 has warm relations with Nick Clegg's LibDems," says Pechtold, "while the VVD has close ties with David Cameron's Conservatives." According to Pechtold, the first British party has a more international outlook than the second, which is primarily focused on national concerns.

Last month's British elections resulted in a unique coalition between the Conservatives and LibDems, and it is very well possible Rutte and Pechtold could end up governing together. Both the VVD and D66 are part of the ALDE group of liberals in the European parliament and they were in coalitions together from 1994 to 2002 and again between 2003 and 2006.

If Rutte can cash in on the positive polls, his party will take the lead in forming a coalition government with two or three other parties. Pechtold has one final warning for Rutte in his Op-Ed. "A real liberal would never work with a politician like Geert Wilders, whose xenophobic dream is a liberal nightmare."

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Election 2010
International