Wednesday 27 October 2010

Gedogen: he who pays the piper calls the tune

Together, the regeerakkoord and the gedoogakkoord make up the coalition pact drawn up by three parties in the newly formed Netherlands’ government. The ‘agreements’ have been struck between the Liberals (VVD), the Christian Democrats (CDA) and Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV) after many months of bargaining and bartering. Whilst the concept of a regeerakkoord ( coalition agreement) is more easily grasped, the term gedoogakkoord is more difficult to fathom. The reason is that gedogen is one of those archetypal Dutch words which, at worst, is untranslatable and, at best, is open to an assortment of interpretations.

The Dutch-English Van Dale dictionary’s definition of the word is ‘to tolerate’, in context: een aantal kamerleden gedoogt deze regering, which it translates into English as ‘a number of members of the house are tolerating this government’, which just sounds a bit too clumsy. Nevertheless, depending on the situation, the word can express many moods, from positive to negative, though in Dutch usage it generally conveys the latter. A gedoogzone voor tippelprostitutie, for example, is an area where ‘streetwalking’ is permitted. Drugs policy in the Netherlands is one of passive tolerance: gedoogbeleid. In other words, the authorities turn a blind eye to an activity which - by the standards of the day - is generally unacceptable, but which is otherwise considered a necessary evil in the interests of law and order. 

The political gedoogakkoord is an agreement designed to keep a minority government in power, in this case the VVD-CDA coalition, which has the implicit support of the PVV: together the three parties have a one-seat majority in parliament. This means that Geert Wilders gives his blessing to bills tabled by the two government parties which meet his approval. As such, the gedoogakkoord can best be translated as a ‘policy of tacit support’. But who exactly is supporting who? Is the PVV simply propping up the government? An opposition party leader in this week’s debate on the new government’s declaration put it this way: de VVD-CDA coalitie regeert, maar de PVV regisseert. In other words, the tail is wagging the dog.

So does ‘tolerate’ mean the same as ‘support’? Some would say the term gedoogsteun – a combination of the words gedogen (tolerate) and steun (support) - is paradoxical. Jan Kluitenbrouwer, in his column in Onze Taal (the Dutch linguists’ magazine), refers to the term as an oxymoron (where words of a contradictory meaning are used in conjunction). Geert Wilders actually has to give his active support to keep the VVD-CDA coalition in power, so he can hardly be said to be ‘tolerating’ or ‘looking the other way’ when it comes to voting on something which he finds acceptable or not. And who exactly is tolerating and supporting who? It could be said that the two government parties are there to keep Geert Wilders in power, so the gedoogsteun actually works in his favour.  

It’s all very confusing and all very Dutch. Whilst a minority administration in Scotland, for example, run by the Scottish Nationalists seems to get by on a bill-by-bill basis - without the need for the tacit support of any one particular party - the Dutch Liberal and Christian Democrat parties have made a conscious decision to seek out the ‘toleration’ of the controversial Geert Wilders and his right-wing PVV party to stay in power.
Toleration or support, who knows where this new Dutch government is going?

My guess is it will all end in tears.