Two names put forward for Dutch Labour Party post

Wed, Feb 22, 2012, 00:00

TWO NAMES are already in the ring to succeed veteran politician Job Cohen as leader of the Dutch Labour Party after his surprise resignation on Monday evening.

The resignation has made it a good week for PVV leader Geert Wilders. The minority Liberal-Christian Democrat coalition government, which depends on Wilders’s party for survival, has been considerably weakened by the row over prime minister Mark Rutte’s failure to condemn the PVV’s controversial anti-immigrant website – and the opposition too is now totally rudderless.

If the timing of Mr Cohen’s resignation came as a surprise, the decision itself has looked inevitable for some time. For at least a year the party has been riven by in-fighting over his failure to make an impact in the polls – a decline that led to the resignation of the party’s deeply frustrated chairwoman, Lilianne Ploumen, last October.

It is widely accepted that Mr Wilders has politically outmanoeuvred both Mr Rutte and Mr Cohen – and now dominates the Dutch political landscape.

His agreement to support the coalition’s budgetary cutbacks in return for a tougher line on immigration has left Mr Rutte unable to criticise his more extreme views for fear of bringing down the government. At the same time, Mr Cohen’s refusal to adopt a more populist PVV-style tone in challenging the government left him looking ineffectual – and washed up.

The final straw came at the weekend in statistics from pollsters Maurice de Hond which showed that although the PVV had been roundly condemned for its anti-immigrant website by employers, trade unions and politicians, as well as by Brussels and Strasbourg, the row had significantly increased its standing in the polls.

It showed that if a general election were held tomorrow, Wilders and the PVV would win 24 seats, up four on a week earlier – highlighting the very contradiction in Dutch society which Cohen has failed to tackle coherently.

By contrast, Cohen’s own fate was sealed by figures that showed that Labour would slide to just 14 seats, down three. Worse still, 45 per cent said Labour needed a new leader now, while 63 per cent said Cohen would not be leader much longer. They were right.

Mr Cohen, a successful former mayor of Amsterdam, a law professor and former rector magnificus of Maastricht University, who became Labour leader just before the 2010 elections, stepped down on Monday and quit parliament “with immediate effect”.

He said: “A political leader who is unable to make an effective contribution should resign.” Last night Diederik Samson and Frans Timmermans – the latter of whom waded into the website row, accusing Mark Rutte of being “an accessory to unacceptable rabble-rousing against fellow-Europeans” – were joint favourites to take over. Another possibility, Ronald Plasterk, would not comment.

In an interview last New Year’s Day, Mr Cohen said the challenge for Labour in 2012 would be “to confront the PVV”. He failed, and the challenge for his successor remains the same.