When Dutch voters on May 14 voted to oust the eight-year-old left-liberal coalition led by Prime Minister Wim Kok, they also opened the way to an assault on one of Holland's most famed social experiments: the de facto legalization of cannabis sales through closely regulated "coffee shops." The man widely expected to become the next Prime Minister, conservative Christian Democrat head Jan Peter Balkenende, is nicknamed "Harry Potter" for his resemblance to the bespectacled movie character, but he might more aptly be called "Harry Anslinger," after the notorious American drug warrior.
Balkenende, described as a "devout Christian," has promised to end the quarter-century policy of tolerance for cannabis and shut down the more than 800 cannabis cafes now open across the country. He has blamed the coffee shops for increasing drug use among Dutch youth.
"This is not a battle we're going to win overnight," Christian Democrat spokesman Marcel Maer told the London Sunday Times. "But we will chip away at the coffee shops, greatly reducing their number over the next two years until hopefully we can get rid of them altogether."
It won't be an easy fight. Coffee shop owners are organized into the Association of Cannabis Retailers, which has vowed to stop any such moves. And the Christian Democrats are relying on the Pim Fortuyn list, named after the iconoclastic anti-immigrant politician assassinated just days before the election, as their primary partners in building a governing coalition. But despite much ink spilled in the Netherlands and abroad describing Fortuyn as a "right-winger," the slain gay ex-professor held typically liberal Dutch views on social issues such as sex and drugs. Further, the Pim Fortuyn list appears to have been held together largely on personalistic grounds and is viewed as a wild card by many observers. Other than being "for Pim," candidates elected from the list hold a variety of positions on just about any issue.
"We expect rules making it harder for coffee shops to keep their licenses," said retailers' association chairman Reier Elzinga. "With Pim at the helm we were safe, but we're no longer sure," he told the Sunday Times.
Balkenende's Christian Democrats won 43 seats in the 150-member parliament, while the Pim Fortuyn list took 26 seats, leaving Balkenende to find only seven more votes to give him a majority coalition in the parliament. Despite years of solid economic growth, former Prime Minister Wim Kok's Labor-Liberal coalition crumpled, buffeted first by a report placing significant blame for the 1995 Srbenica massacre in Bosnia on Dutch soldiers, commanders, and politicians, and then by a wave of sympathy for Fortuyn after his murder, expressed by votes for candidates on his list. While Labor and the Liberals held 83 seats -- a solid majority -- in the old parliament, they could only muster 23 seats each in the latest elections.
The Kok government had already moved to rein in the coffee shops, reducing their numbers from roughly 1200 to the current 840, and reducing the amount of cannabis that could be purchased at one time from 30 grams to 5 grams. But Balkenende, who seems to have more in common with US Attorney General John Ashcroft than with the flamboyant Fortuyn, is philosophically opposed to the cannabis cafes. He has also expressed opposition to liberal Dutch policies on euthanasia and gay marriages.