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Netherlands

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Surinam: Not Another You-Know-What

Donald Trump would undoubtedly include Surinam in his category of ‘shithole* countries’ if he knew where it was, but it is definitely getting better. In fact, the man who is the symbol and in large part the cause of its poor reputation, Dési Bouterse, is about to be ousted from the presidency after a free election and sent to jail for the rest of his life.

Surinam, on the Caribbean coast of South America, was a Dutch colony for more than three centuries, but there were never many Dutch people there. It had a plantation economy and the workers were always imported from elsewhere: African slaves at first, and later indentured workers from Indonesia and India.

Divided by both ethnicity and religion (Christians, Muslims and Hindus), the society that grew up there was dysfunctional from the start. When the wave of decolonisation finally reached Surinam in the 1970s, its people distrusted their own fellow citizens so much that more than one-third of them moved to the Netherlands while the going was good.

Those left behind – there are now 350,000 people of Surinamese descent in the Netherlands, and only 600,000 in Surinam – must all have had moments when they regretted their choice, because what they got was not freedom but Dési Bouterse. In 1980 he and fifteen other sergeants in the new Surinam army carried out a military coup, and Bouterse has dominated the country ever since.

There were four attempted counter-coups in 1981 – everybody understood by then that political power was the only road to riches – and eventually Bourterse shut the game down by sheer terror. In 1982 he ordered his soldiers to round up, torture and execute 15 dissident officers, union leaders, journalists and businessmen.

The ‘December murders’ silenced his critics and stabilised his rule, which was at first a brazen dictatorship. But then he discovered populism, and began his exploiting his unusually mixed ancestry in an ethnically divided country – his family is of African, Dutch, Amerindian, French, and Chinese descent – to win elections as a truly ‘national’ candidate.

Bouterse remained thuggish and corrupt – in 1999 a Dutch court convicted him in absentia on drug smuggling charges – but he had learned to win the support of the poor by spreading government money around at the right time. He also cozied up with fellow populist Hugo Chávez in nearby Venezuela, and whether he was formally in power or not, he was the man who really mattered in Surinam.

Only once was he successfully challenged, when chief commissioner of police Chandrikapersad ‘Chan’ Santokhi brought him to court in 2007 over the ‘December murders’ and got a conviction. However, Bouterse appealed the conviction, got himself elected as president again in 2010, and kicked that problem down the road for another decade.

Only recently did his prospects darken. First the aluminum company that had mined bauxite in Surinam for a century pulled out and the price of oil (of which Surinam exports a limited amount) collapsed.

As government revenue fell and unemployment rose, Bouterse raided the banks for funds to keep his traditional supporters happy, but that just created a wave of inflation that damaged everybody’s income.

Then in 2019 Surinam’s Court of Appeal confirmed Bouterse’s conviction for murder and the 20-year jail sentence that went with it. The only way he could avoid arrest and imprisonment was to win the next election and remain in the presidency.

On 25 May Bouterse lost that election. The opposition leader who will replace him is the same person who brought the murder charges against him thirteen years ago, Chan Santokhi.

Bouterse immediately alleged fraud and demanded a recount, but on Monday election observers sent by both the Caribbean Community and the Organisation of American States declared that the election had been “free, fair, transparent, and credible”.

So unless Bouterse can launch another coup (which seems unlikely, since he is now 74), he will shortly be off to spend the rest of his life in prison. And the people whose lives he has dominated for the past forty years have another chance at making something of their country.

In fact, they have already made a fair start at it. The younger generation have moved beyond the ethnic confines of their heritage and are becoming what in Mauritius, another ex-colonial country with a similar history and ethnic make-up, is known as the ‘general population’.

Many would still leave if they could, for the country is still poor, but they are starting to think and act as Surinamese. The courts work, the elections are now fair, and there’s a good chance that the next government will not be corrupt. If the country can stay on this course for a generation, it could become a place where people actually want to live.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 9, 10 and 15. (“Only…income”; and “In fact…population”)

So Much for the Populist Wave

In his victory speech on Sunday night Emmanuel Macron, the next president of France, said: “I want to become…the president of the patriots in the face of the threat from the nationalists.” The distinction would be lost on most Trump supporters in the United States and on the “Little Englanders” who voted for Brexit in Britain, but it’s absolutely clear to the French, and indeed to most Europeans.

In the United States the preferred word is “patriot”, but it usually just means “nationalist”, with flags flaunted and slogans chanted. “America First” says Trump, and the crowd replies “USA all the way!”

You can’t imagine a British election rally doing that – the United Kingdom is too close to mainland Europe, where that sort of thing ended very badly – but the English nationalism behind Brexit was painfully obvious. For some in both countries it’s actually “white nationalism”, but even the many non-racists who voted for Trump or Brexit draw the line at the border or the water’s edge. There’s “us”, and on the far side there’s “them”.

Whereas the French men and women who voted for Macron understand the difference between patriotism and nationalism very well. They will have to vote for Macron again in the run-off election on 7 May, when his opponent will be the neo-fascist candidate, Marine Le Pen, but in that round they will be joined by almost all the people who voted for other presidential candidates in the first round. She is a nationalist; they are patriots.

In Europe, nationalism is linked in the collective memory with the catastrophe of the last century’s great wars, and the racism that is often associated with it triggers images of Nazi extermination camps. Not all Europeans are immune to that kind of nationalism or political phenomena like Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Beppo Grillo in Italy could not exist, but they remain a minority almost everywhere.

That was not obvious four months ago. After the Brexit vote last June and Trump’s election in November, Europe’s ultra-nationalists were convinced that their moment had finally come – and many observers feared that they were right. Brexit seemed like the first step towards the break-up of the European Union, and from the Netherlands to Austria it felt like the fascists were at the door.

Not so. Wilders’s party gained only a few seats in last month’s Dutch election and remains very much a minority taste. Marine Le Pen is no closer to the French presidency than her openly fascist father was fifteen years ago: the National Front vote never breaks through the 25 percent ceiling. And the hard-right, anti-immigrant, anti-EU “Alternative for Germany” party has lost its leader and one-third of its popular support in the past month.

Some of this is simply disillusionment. Significant numbers of Europeans were initially tempted to back local populist parties by the sheer flamboyance of Trump’s US electoral campaign. After all, Europeans also worry about immigration and terrorism and unemployment, and his rude and crude rhetoric seemed to validate the similar language of their own populist leaders.

But the reality of the dysfunctional Trump White House has turned off most of those recent European converts to populist politics. By and large the hard-right parties of Europe are back where they were before The Donald burst upon the scene, with almost no chance of gaining real political power. It was a false alarm.

The “populist wave” that seemed to be sweeping through Western politics turns out to be merely a storm in the much smaller teacup known as the “Anglosphere”. It’s only known this way to Europeans, who use the word, often tinged with contempt, to describe the deregulated economies and market-obsessed politics of the post-Reagan United States and post-Thatcher United Kingdom. (Australia occasionally gets an honourable mention too.)

For a quarter of a century the politics of the Anglosphere has been consistently subservient to “the market” even when purportedly left-wing leaders like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were in power. The result, as you would expect, has been somewhat higher economic growth rates, and a rapidly widening gulf between the incomes of the rich and the rest.

The rest of the West has not been immune to this political fashion, but it has been far less prominent in the countries of the European Union (and even in deviant anglophone countries like Canada and New Zealand). Now the disparity in incomes between the 1 percent and the 99 percent has grown so great in the heartlands of the Anglosphere that the political chickens are coming home to roost.

The response in both the United States and the United Kingdom is not real populism, which for all its faults does at least try to shrink income inequalities. It is standard right-wing politics in a populist style, using nationalism to distract the victims from the fact that these governments actually serve the rich.

Move along, please. There’s nothing new to see here.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Some…alarm”)

Dutch Election

The Dutch political system may not have been deliberately designed to produce middle-of-the-road outcomes, but it certainly works that way in practice: many small parties, multi-party coalitions to create a majority government, perpetual compromise. It is almost impossible to radicalise a system like this, but Geert Wilders is going to try.

Wilders is the founder and leader of the Freedom Party (PVV), which currently holds only twelve seats in the 150-seat Dutch parliament. But he is aiming to make it the largest single party in the March 15 election – which, in ordinary times, would probably give it the leading role in the next coalition government.

But these are not normal times, and the PVV is far from a normal party. It really only has one policy – stop the immigrants – and it is unshamedly racist and anti-Muslim in its rhetoric. Wilders recently called Dutch residents of Moroccan origin “scum”. He vows to close mosques and Islamic schools, ban the sale of the Koran, and stop all further immigrants or asylum seekers from Muslim countries.

He is the Dutch Donald Trump, a silver-maned provocateur who deploys the maximum possible nastiness in his campaign talk and his frequent abusive tweets. In fact, some people argue that Trump must have taken lessons from Wilders, who has been working this side of the street for at least a decade already, but the concept of convergent evolution probably applies. Populists are almost always racists too.

Which brings us to the question that is most interesting for people who don’t live in the Netherlands. Can racism and xenophobia alone, without any help from economic desperation, persuade a traditionally liberal Western electorate to cast its values aside and vote for an authoritarian bully with an anti-Muslim obsession?

Trump had lots of help from economic despair. The key voters who gave him an electoral college victory last November were in the Rust Belt states: men (they were mostly men) who would usually have backed Democratic candidates, but switched to Trump because he promised to “bring back the jobs” and stop the non-white immigration.

There was certainly a large element of racial panic in the American vote. A survey by Zack Beauchamp of the opinion polling and recent academic research on the topic, entitled “White Riot” and published on Vox on 20 January, documented the argument that “the real sources of the far-right’s appeal are anger over immigration and a toxic mix of racial and religious intolerance.”

On the other hand, the Rust Belt states south of the Great Lakes, the former industrial heartland of the United States, are the places that have suffered the greatest job losses over the past few decades, which is why cities like Cleveland and Detroit are decaying and partly abandoned. And they are emphatically NOT major destinations for new immigrants to the US.

Trump himself always ensures that he hits on both immigration and job losses in his speeches and tweets, and he is the world’s expert on the fears and prejudices of his supporters. Could we perhaps speculate that his supporters say that they are frightened about immigration and especially Mulim immigration, but that their racism is really driven in large part by their anger at the steep decline in the number of well-paid industrial jobs?

Of the six states with over a million immigrants – California, New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey – only Florida (where Trump won by a whisker) and Texas (which has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1980) voted for Trump. California, whose ten million immigrants make up 27 percent of the state population, voted two-to-one for Hillary Clinton.

It would seem that, in the words of the old Phil Spector song, to know, know, know them is to love, love, love them (the immigrants), or at least not to fear them. Whereas Michigan, a Rust-Belt state that voted Democratic in the previous six elections and where only 6 percent of the population are immigrants, voted for Trump.

You can see the same pattern in the Brexit vote in England last June. The prosperous big cities are where the immigrants are, and every one of them except Birmingham voted Remain (in the European Union). London, where half the school population is non-white, voted Remain by a 60-40 majority, as did Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol.

The narrow Leave majority countrywide was won in depressed northern industrial cities where immigrant populations are low, and in prosperous rural areas where there are virtually no immigrants at all. So there was again racial panic at the changing ethnic face of England in areas where immigrants were largely absent, but especially in post-industrial areas where they are (wrongly) blamed for the loss of well-paying jobs.

In populist revolts elsewhere, the manifest racism and anti-immigrant sentiment that dominated in the opinion polls masked a deeper resentment about the loss of jobs. In the Netherlands, where unemployment is only 5 percent, Geert Wilders is depending on racism alone, and he is not heading for a Brexit- or Trump-style victory. The latest opinion poll gives him just 15 percent of the vote.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“You..jobs”)

Cartoons of Muhammad Again

Would it be all right if I called Geert Wilders a piece of human waste? No? Damn. Well, then, can I call him a deeply cynical politician who is willing to get people killed to advance his political career? Okay, thanks.

Geert Wilders is a deeply cynical Dutch politician who is willing to get people killed to advance his political career. Sometimes they are Muslims, sometimes they are people of Christian heritage – that doesn’t really matter, so long as he reaps the publicity. And now he has come up with a clever new way to outrage foolish young Muslims and get them to murder people for him.

Wilders realised that a little-known Dutch law obliges the television networks to show ANYTHING that a politician wishes to include in a party political broadcast. No censorship is allowed on grounds of truth, of taste, or even of safety. So the far-right politician, whose whole political career has been based on attacking Islam, decided to air some truly nasty cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad.

One shows a man labelled “Muhammad” with snakes in his beard. Another shows a rather loony-looking young man who is clearly labelled “The Prophet Muhammad”. A third shows somebody who is probably meant to be Muhammad on a unicycle, juggling five chopped-off heads with letters attached that spell ISLAM. Not funny, not clever, not really even topical. Just nasty.

Most Muslims are uncomfortable with images of Muhammad, and many believe that they are blasphemous. That doesn’t mean that democratic, pluralist societies like those of the West should ban such images. Freedom of speech means that any group, including any religious group, should accept that it may be criticised, even mocked in public. You cannot demand special treatment just because your feelings will be hurt.

But you can and should expect not to be singled out for hatred simply because of your particular religious beliefs. You have the right to be protected from rhetoric that deliberately confounds innocent believers with terrorists (as Wilders regularly does). And you certainly have right to be protected from incitements to violence.

There is a world of difference between Geert Wilders and the dozen people who were murdered by Islamist extremists at the satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo” last January. They were equal-opportunity cartoonists who targeted everybody with equal irreverence and a fine absence of discrimination; Wilders is a monomaniac who wants to ban the Koran in the Netherlands because it is “like (Adolf Hitler’s) Mein Kampf”.

But he is a devious monomaniac, because the people he is really trying to incite to violence are Muslims. If he can trick ignorant Muslims into killing people by portraying the Prophet Muhammad in ugly and insulting cartoons, he wins.

The cartoons Wilders has insisted be broadcast on Dutch television were originally shown at an event in Texas last month which awarded a $10,000 prize for the best (i.e. worst) cartoon about Muhammad. The organisers were trying to provoke a reaction, so they invited Wilders to give the event a higher profile. It worked wonderfully: two simplistic young fanatics tried to attack the conference, and were shot dead in the car park.

So Wilders brought copies of the cartoons home with him, and announced that he would broadcast them on Dutch television as a defence of free speech. The broadcast was supposed to go out in the Netherlands on Saturday, but somebody at the NPO1 television network managed to mislay the tape Wilders had given them.

He was furiously indignant about that, of course, and insisted that his right as a party leader to put anything he wants on the party political broadcasts must be respected. He says he has now been promised that it will go out on Wednesday evening. If the promise is kept, the rioting and killing will probably have started by the time you read this.

Wilders knows perfectly well that this will happen, and is content that it should. He and his anti-Muslim allies on the far right of Dutch politics are what Marxists used to call the “objective allies” of the bearded Muslim extremists screaming for blood in the streets and the more calculating Muslim leaders who urge those fanatics to go out and commit violence in the name of “defending” Islam.

Both parties, however much they hate each other, have a common interest in keeping the outrage level among their followers high, and they tacitly cooperate to keep the pot boiling. The poor old media know they are being manipulated and exploited by people with truly reprehensible agendas, but they cannot simply refuse to report the news, even if it is manufactured news (as is so often the case).

And so, in a world where most people of any religion or none simply want to get on with their neighbours and lead a quiet life, we are fed a constant diet of lies that shows us a world full of blood-thirsty, hate-filled extremists.

Oh, and by the way: Geert Wilders is a piece of human waste.

NOTE: if the “piece of human waste” line is too strong for your paper’s policy, simply omit the first paragraph and the last sentence.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Most…violence”)