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April 24, 2012, Tuesday

The revenge of Abdullah Gül

Last week President Abdullah Gül visited the Netherlands to mark the official start of the celebrations of 400 years of Turkish-Dutch trade and diplomatic relations. The visit got a lot of attention in the media and was considered successful by most observers.

The Dutch government did their utmost to show respect for the new economic and diplomatic powerhouse called Turkey, the queen spent several days with the president and offered an impressive state banquet, and I am sure many useful contacts were established between business people from both countries.

But there was always this dark cloud hanging over the three-day event: the vocal objections against close Dutch-Turkish ties by Geert Wilders, the leader of the extreme-right Freedom Party that supports the center-right government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Before and during the visit, Mr. Wilders, as expected, did his utmost to irritate the Turkish delegation by scolding and insulting them, creating an uncomfortable feeling among both the Turkish guests and the Dutch hosts.

The real surprises started the moment President Gül left the Netherlands on Thursday after having visited the most southern region of the country, Limburg. During that trip, the queen and the president met with the regional government that consists of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), the Christian Democrats and the Freedom Party. The two representatives of Mr. Wilders’ party decided in the end to join the dinner although they first refused to do so because of the presence of President Gül. Their ambivalent behavior created a lot of resentment among their colleagues from other parties and a row inside their own party. One day later on Friday, the Christian Democrats in Limburg all of a sudden announced that they were fed up with this kind of maneuvering by Mr. Wilders’ regional mouthpieces. Their tomfoolery had damaged the image of the region and offended the visitors from Turkey. Without further ado, the Freedom Party was kicked out of the regional government, the only one in which the populists were represented anyway.

One day later, their farewell to power went into overdrive when Mr. Wilders unexpectedly walked out of negotiations intended to formulate budget cuts that are necessary to meet European budget deficit standards. It meant the governing coalition had lost its majority in parliament and on Monday Prime Minister Rutte was forced to tender his resignation. Within two days, Mr. Wilders lost his place at the table, both regionally and nationally.

It has created an extremely complicated situation in the Netherlands. New elections are unavoidable, be it in June or after the summer holidays, in September. But in the meantime, the Netherlands are still expected to present a draft budget to the European Commission in Brussels shortly that indicates which budget cuts and reforms the Netherlands are planning to introduce to be able to stay below the maximum 3 percent budget deficit in 2013. The irony is that it was the Netherlands -- together with Germany -- that pushed for this very tough and inflexible European standard some months ago, having in mind struggling southern eurozone member states such as Italy and Spain. Now the Dutch are in danger of falling into their own trap. How to comply with the criteria for a sound 2013 budget when there is no majority in parliament willing to support such a proposal until after elections and the establishment of a new government?

Back to President Gül’s visit and the remarkable sequence of events that followed his stay in the Netherlands. During the weekend, several Dutch anti-Wilders columnists and bloggers made a link between Mr. Wilders’ provocations of the Turkish president and his fall from grace. Many thanked Gül for his visit and expressed their hope that he would come back soon because they appreciated the political fall-out of this visit very much. Apparently, one visit of his arch enemy was enough to create insurmountable problems for Mr. Wilders. Others referred to the poisonous impact of Turkey on Mr. Wilders’ career. Firstly, he left the VVD in 2004 to form his own party because he strongly disagreed with the liberal pro-Turkish EU membership position. Secondly, his efforts to spoil the 400 years of Turkish-Dutch relations celebrations completely backfired. It was not Gül who was damaged, but it was Wilders himself who was seriously injured. Some would call it divine justice.

Finally, with a strong humoristic undertone, one well-known commentator concluded that one should not mess around with the Turks. You see what happens when you do. Mr. Wilders’ downfall can be perceived as the ultimate revenge of Abdullah Gül.

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