Jan Peter life and biography

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Jan Peter biography

Date of birth : 1956-05-07
Date of death : -
Birthplace : Kapelle, Netherlands
Nationality : Dutch
Category : Politics
Last modified : 2010-07-22
Credited as : Politician, Prime Minister of Netherlands, World's political leader

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Jan Peter Balkenende, born May 7, 1956 in Kapelle, Netherlands is a Dutch political leader and current prime Minister of Nethelands.

The Kingdom of the Netherlands is the largest of the three Benelux countries, the other two being Belgium and Luxembourg. The country shares its borders with Belgium to the south and Germany to the east; the northern and western shores face the North Sea. Though the Netherlands is often called Holland, this is in fact the official name of two of its 12 provinces, Nord Holland and Zuid Holland. Also considered part of the Netherlands is the Netherlands Antilles, an island group in the Caribbean. The Netherlands's 33,883 sq km of land (about 13,104 sq mi) are home to nearly 16.1 million people (2002 estimate), making it the most densely populated nation in Europe. A quarter of the country's land has been reclaimed from the sea by the use of dikes and coastal dunes, and nearly two-thirds of the population lives below sea level. The capital and largest city is Amsterdam, while the seat of government is The Hague. Approximately 31% of the population is Roman Catholic while 21% are Protestant. The official language is Dutch.

The Netherlands has traditionally been a major maritime power and still boasts a large merchant fleet; Rotterdam is the world's busiest port. Foreign trade plays a large part in the economy and merchandise exports are equal to almost 50% of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). Major exports include machinery, chemicals, and agricultural products. The Netherlands is a member of the European Union (EU) and nearly 80% of its trade is with other EU-member nations, with the primary destinations being Germany, Belgium, and the United Kingdom. The Netherlands has, by and large, avoided the economic sluggishness that has plagued continental European economies over the last few years. Unlike some of its neighbors, the Dutch economy has continued to grow and is currently averaging about 4% per year. The per capita GDP stood dose to US$26,900 (2002 estimate). In 2002, the Netherlands became one of twelve EU nations to adopt the euro as its official currency.

POLITICAL BACKGROUND

Having been under successive control of the Dukes of Burgundy, the Habsburg Empire, and the Kingdom of Spain, the Netherlands effectively achieved independence in 1581. Dutch sovereignty was later codified in the Treaty of M√ľnster, signed in 1648. Following a period of Napoleonic rule, beginning in 1795, the Dutch reasserted their independence in 1813. A constitutional monarchy was installed together with a strong States-General (parliament), effectively laying the foundations for the present political system. The Constitution was revised in 1848 giving greater power to the States-General and has existed almost unchanged since that time. Within the present system, the role of the monarch is largely ceremonial; power rests mainly with the bicameral States-General and through it the government. The 150-member Second Chamber of the States-General is directly elected and is the more powerful of the two houses, having the ability to propose and amend legislation. In comparison, the First Chamber, which consists of 75 members elected by the 12 provincial councils, can only approve or reject legislation. Elections for both the First and Second Chamber are held every four years, though never in the same year. The government is usually formed by the largest party in the parliament, which either on its own, or through forming a coalition, controls a majority of votes in both chambers. In reality, no single party since World War II has been able to obtain an absolute majority; all postwar governments have been the products of various coalitions.

The electoral system is based on the principle of proportional representation, which ensures that each party in parliament receives an amount of seats roughly proportional to its share of the national vote. Thus, if a candidate in a given district is defeated, his votes are not lost but are added to a pool that will then determine the distribution of seats in a second round of allocation. This system, unlike the "first past the post" voting practiced in countries such as the United States, makes it much easier for smaller parties to gain representation. Since the election of 6 May 1998, the Second Chamber has contained representatives of nine separate parties.

For more than half a century, starting in 1917, Dutch politics was dominated by political parties closely tied to the two major religious denominations, Roman Catholic and Protestant. These religious-based parties, either alone or in coalition, participated in each government that was formed. In 1980, a number of these parties merged to create the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) Party, which went on to form successive governments until being removed from power after the election of 4 May 1994. That election, which resulted in a coalition government under the leadership of Wim Kok and his Labor Party (PvdA), marked the first time since World War I that the traditional religious parties had been excluded from power. This situation was confirmed by the May 1998 election, from which the PvdA emerged as the largest party, with 45 seats. As was the case in 1994, Kok again chose to form a so-called "purple" coalition with the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (Liberal Party--VVD) and a smaller center-left party named Democrats 66 (D-66), again excluding the CDA. The term "purple" in this case describes a melding of the three parties' colors--red for the PvdA, blue and orange for the VVD, and green for D-66.

In April 2002, the coalition resigned in the wake of a damning report on the failures of the detachment of Dutch peacekeepers to protect the safe haven of Srebrenica in Bosnia. Dutch soldiers were supposed to guarantee the safety of the local residents, yet failed to prevent Bosnian Serbs from taking over the safe haven and massacring over 7,000 Muslim men and boys in 1995. The report condemned both the United Nations (UN) and Dutch politicians for lack of foresight and preparation. In response, the entire Kok cabinet resigned six weeks before scheduled elections, to take responsibility for the mistakes of the ill-conceived UN mission. The May 2002 election brought much excitement and uncertainty. A totally unknown former academic, Pim Fortuyn, created a new political party, called List Pim Fortuyn (LPF), that ran on a platform of deregulation and privatization in combination with anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic slogans. Although a lone gunman assassinated Fortuyn on 6 May, nine days before the election, his party, which had not existed three months earlier, became the second-largest party in Parliament, holding 26 seats. The PvdA lost nearly half of its seats, going from 45 to 23. After some haggling and negotiations, the new government consisted, therefore, of the CDA, the new LPF, and the VVD. By October 2002, this fragile coalition led by Balkenende had fallen apart, mostly because the LPF politicians endlessly bickered among themselves. The January 2003 election was a victory for the PvdA, which won back nearly all the seats they had lost in the May election while the CDA survived as the largest party. At the end of March, officials of the PvdA and CDA parties were still negotiating the finer points of a coalition agreement more than two months after the election.

PERSONAL BACKGROUND

Jan Peter Balkenende was born 7 May 1956 in Kapelle. He attended the Free University in Amsterdam and received a doctorate in law in 1991, with a dissertation on state regulations and social organizations. For many years, he worked on the legal staff of the Scientific Institute of the CDA. From 1993 until 2002, he also taught economics part-time at the Free University. As a professor, he published a number of articles for the CDA's scientific bureau on what he perceived to be the two main currents in Dutch society: liberal individualism and a modern community spirit. In 1994, after spending several years as an alderman in his native Amstelveen, he was asked to lead the CDA in the city council.

In 1998, he was elected to national Parliament; in October 2001 he became leader of the CDA.

Upon becoming prime minister, the forty-seven-year-old Balkenende was described as bearing a remarkable resemblance to Harry Potter, the hero of the internationally popular series of children's books. Balkenende wears owlish glasses, sports a schoolboy haircut, and looks very young for his age.

RISE TO POWER

Nine months before the May 2002 election, Jan Peter Balkenende was the largely anonymous number two in the CDA. After his appointment as party leader in October 2001, he was credited with steering his party to a landslide victory in the 2002 general elections. Originally, when he became party leader, the print media dismissed him as a man without leadership qualities. He was labeled "the professor," and described as "lacking media personality." Since he succeeded Jaap de Hoop Scheffer after a vicious leadership crisis within the party, his ability to build consensus was questioned. Apparently, he was given the number one position for wont of a better candidate and he was widely regarded as a transitory figure.

Undeterred by persistent remarks about his stiff appearance, Balkenende steered a straight course as he tried to strengthen his party. He surprised many of his critics with his no-nonsense and natural leadership style. Owing to the fact that he deliberately expressed no preference for any party as a possible partner within a future coalition government, he did not automatically exclude the controversial List Pim Fortuyn (LPF). Dutch voters apparently rewarded Balkenende for "interacting normally" with populist Pim Fortuyn and ensured that the CDA became the largest party after the May 2002 election. Nevertheless, when coalition negotiations began after the May election, Balkenende insisted that the List Pim Fortuyn retract some of its more controversial positions-- such as that Islam is a backward culture. Thanks to his leadership, the CDA emerged as a viable alternative to the ruling "purple" center-left coalition. His first government fell after 78 days because of tensions inside the LPF and new elections were held in January 2003. Voters again expressed their approval of Balkenende's leadership by giving the party about the same number of seats in Parliament as before.

LEADERSHIP

The fatigue and turmoil in the outgoing "purple coalition" provided the CDA under the leadership of Balkenende a perfect opportunity to return to power. Unlike the leaders of the PvdA (Labor) and VVD (Liberal) parties, Balkenende never snubbed or demonized his controversial opponent, Pim Fortuyn. In fact, he led the CDA (Christian Democrats) into a 180-degree shift and repudiated the country's multicultural approach to immigration. Newcomers, Balkenende declared, should assimilate into Dutch culture. After May 2002, it became clear that Balkenede's strategy had worked because the CDA won the election while the Labor party suffered a record loss in Dutch parliamentary elections. The Liberal party also fared badly, going from 38 to 23 seats. As the largest party (with 44 seats), the Christian Democrats were asked to put together a coalition. They accomplished this by striking government agreements with the Liberal party and Fortuyn's new LPF. Balkenende's first cabinet, however, was mostly known for its internal divisions due to feuding within the LPF, which suffered from a leadership vacuum after Fortuyn was assassinated.

Balkenende's government fell in October and then awaited new elections scheduled for January. In January 2003, the CDA won 44 seats and narrowly beat the Labor party, which made a remarkable comeback, winning 42 seats. Balkenende faced difficult coalition choices. He would have preferred a coalition without Labor since they disagreed on issues such as health and education. However, the Liberal party did not obtain enough votes to create a majority and Balkenende hesitated to recreate a coalition with the weakened LPF, which went from 26 to 8 seats and was rudderless and feuding. Without much choice, the CDA and Labor entered into lengthy and protracted negotiations to hammer out a coalition agreement that outlined the objectives of the government for the next four years. Cuts in social programs and health care are some of the main impediments as are divergent views on foreign policy and tax policy.

DOMESTIC POLICY

At the top of the Dutch domestic agenda is the deteriorating economic situation with implications for the central government budget and social security system. In spite of continuing reform of the country's social security system, an unacceptably large proportion of the working-age population lives on disability. Although benefit levels were cut, around 15% of the working-age population was receiving government disability allowances as of 2003. During the 1980s, nonwage costs, such as social welfare contributions, were reduced. Real wages rose after 1995, however, in the wake of a tight labor market, after unemployment dropped to 2%. Manufacturing costs have risen by 15% since 1995 compared to an average of 2% in other European Union (EU) countries. At the same time, a slowdown in growth has led to rising unemployment, lower tax revenues, and a modest budget deficit. The Dutch government therefore faces the challenge of implementing structural reforms of social programs while coping with a cyclical economic downturn.

The sudden appearance (and disappearance) of an anti-immigration party has put some new issues on the domestic agenda, which all future governments will have to address. The immigrant population makes up almost 10% of the Dutch population. Their presence has stimulated a new debate on the difficulties of assimilation and the resulting isolation of certain ethnic communities. In addition, among certain groups, the lack of job skills and education combine to contribute to a corresponding rise in crime and urban decay. Moreover, the popularity of LPF was indicative of the depth of discontent felt by the electorate about consensus politics, the colorless technocratic background of most politicians, and secretive backroom deals. Disenchantment with "politics as usual" contributed much to the popularity of LPF and its party platform (despite the fact that the platform was relatively vague), and to a renewed interest in the nature of Dutch culture.

FOREIGN POLICY

The defining feature of Dutch foreign policy is the country's membership in the EU. The Netherlands has been part of the EU since the organization's inception as the European Community (EC) in 1958. As a result of the EU's single-market program, completed in 1992, all trade between the Netherlands and the other members of the EU is tariff-free. In addition, a large part of the Netherlands' social, environmental, and financial policy follows guidelines that have been laid out by the EU's secretariat in Brussels. Similarly, relations between the Netherlands and countries outside the EU are strongly influenced by the mechanisms of both the European Political Cooperation and the Common Foreign and Security Policy by which EU members endeavor to coordinate their foreign policy positions.

As part of its commitment to the EU, the Netherlands has also pledged itself to the process of European monetary integration, which included the adoption of the euro as official currency in 2002. The first head of the European Central Bank, a new body that is responsible for monetary policy in the euro zone, is Willem Duisenberg of the Netherlands. Dutch support for the European process continued under the Kok government. Kok, himself, is a committed European and was one of the crucial figures behind the 1991 Maastricht Treaty.

In the late 1990s, the Netherlands became more assertive about its contribution to the EU after it has become the second-biggest net contributor. Although the Dutch are unlikely to make this into a major issue, it has made them more cautious about expanding any EU programs or budgetary outlays. The more critical stance of the Netherlands is also a reflection of the prestige enjoyed by Fritz Bolkestein, the former leader of the VVD and current commissioner of internal markets. He is not a great fan of further federalism.

Beyond its membership in the EU, the Netherlands is also a partner in North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Western European Union. It is through NATO and the UN that the Netherlands has historically participated in numerous peacekeeping operations, including the one sent to Yugoslavia.

The Netherlands is one of the most generous providers of foreign assistance in the world. In fact, only the Scandinavian countries regularly devote more of their GDP to foreign assistance.

Balkenende has presided for most of the time over a temporary transitional government. For this reason, he has had hardly any opportunity to make his mark on foreign policy. In the fall of 2002, the Netherlands strongly supported the Bush administration in its efforts to disarm Iraq. In the spring of 2003, however, the Dutch government fell silent, not wishing to jeopardize its relations with other EU member states or the United States, and refrained from commenting on the war against Iraq. Generally, the government pushed for a diplomatic solution and preferred the United States to operate within the framework of UN resolutions and public opinion was opposed to the war. This complicated the position of each party in early 2003, since they were still negotiating--and, after two full months had not reached a coalition agreement. Once the invasion of Iraq began, however, both Labor and CDA announced that they supported the U.S. action and wished for a speedy end to the war with minimal casualties.

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