Profile: Jan Peter Balkenende

He may have largely shaken off comparisons to Harry Potter, but Jan Peter Balkenende's triumph in a general election in the Netherlands on Wednesday was a considerable feat of wizardry.

Indeed a capacity for survival has been a consistent and notable factor in the Christian Democrat [CDA] politician's relatively brief but eventful career.

As the leader of the largest single party, tradition generally has it that the responsibility for forming a government will now fall to Mr Balkenende. It would be his fourth administration in less than five years.

In that time the Netherlands has witnessed its most drawn-out and damaging economic downturn since the second world war, and an unprecedented sequence of domestic and geo-political events that have recast Dutch attitudes.

Terrorism, the rise of radical Islam and the challenge of integration, notably in relation to nearly 1m Dutch Muslims resident in a country of 16m people, have pushed the limits of tolerance and led to the adoption of harsher, conservative policies.

Much of that is down to Mr Balkenende, whose own political convictions are grounded in a devout Protestant faith. He has campaigned hard for what he calls Dutch "standards and values", warning the country faced a moral crisis. It was a message that critics initially dismissed as an out-dated attempt to steer the Netherlands back to archaic values more suited to the 1950s.

But since the murder two years ago by a radical Islamist of film-maker Theo van Gogh, politicians of all hues have homed in on the evident fault-lines that existed between ethnic and indigenous Dutch communities.

With evening news broadcasting live the round-up of terrorist suspects in the centre of The Hague, Mr Balkenende's message for a return to decent values rang out resoundingly.

Born fifty years ago in the southern Dutch town of Kapelle, part of a Calvinist band dubbed the Bible belt, running diagonally across the Netherlands, Jan Peter Balkenende studied history and law at Amsterdam's Free University before joining a CDA research institute.

He became a member of parliament in 1998, and party leader in late 2001, succeeding Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who would go onto become NATO secretary general.

By May he faced a general election, dominated by the issues of race and religion raised by the firebrand populist Pim Fortuyn. Mr Balkenende's CDA swept into power on the coat-tails of Fortuyn. He had struck a "non-aggression pact" with the right-winger, whereby the duo agreed to attack the outgoing centre-left government rather than each other.

Despite never having served in a Dutch cabinet, Mr Balkenende suddenly found himself appointed prime minister and charged with building a coalition government. Forced to include Fortuyn's LPF, now directionless since the murder of its founder, the administration fell apart in just 87 days. Its successor, with the liberal VVD and centrist D66, fared better - although it was often an uneasy relationship.

Mr Balkenende was sharply criticised - notably by D66 politicians - for his lack of leadership during the referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty, which the Dutch rejected in June 2005. There was trouble too over the Dutch decision to dispatch troops to Afghanistan. Finally, in June, D66 quit over the government's handling of the citizenship of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the anti-Islam campaigner.

Mr Balkenende, set an election date and patched together a minority administration with VVD to steer through a budget, buoyed by economic recovery. His fortunes improved dramatically with the promise of prosperity, and his party reversed a 16-seat opinion poll deficit in less than five months.

The budget appeared to vindicate the harsh measures imposed in prior years to regain competitiveness, notably through a wage freeze, welfare and employment reform and the scrapping of incentives to early retirement.

However there had also occurred a shift in perception among voters. A country where nothing very much used to happen, has wearied of change, analysts said. Commentators cite that factor to explain the lack of discussion during the election campaign of the integration issue. Instead they were evidently drawn to Mr Balkenende's upbeat message about improved purchasing power.

Mr Balkenende's sheer ordinariness suddenly seemed reassuring to many voters. Readers of de Telegraaf, the biggest-selling Dutch newspaper voted him the politician they would most trust to sell them a second-hand car. In a country which had weathered more than its share of shocks, Mr Balkenende has become a symbol of stability and solidity simply by surviving.

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