AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Dutch Christian Democrats, despite some reservations, voted on Saturday in favor of a pact with the Liberals to form a minority coalition government supported by the anti-Islam Freedom Party.
About 68 percent of 4,033 Christian Democrat members who cast their ballots at a party congress in Arnhem voted for the deal, removing a major obstacle to the formation of the Netherlands’ first post-war minority government.
Earlier this week the Liberals (VVD) and the Freedom Party (PVV) approved the pact, which makes concessions to the PVV’s populist leader Geert Wilders by including the introduction of a ban on the wearing of burqas by Muslim women and tighter immigration rules.
Some leading Christian Democrat (CDA) figures object to the PVV’s far-right agenda and its MPs decided earlier this week to refer the pact to Saturday’s party congress.
Following inconclusive elections in June, the VVD and the CDA hold 52 seats between them in the 150-seat parliament. With support from the PVV they would have a bare majority of 76.
CDA leader Maxime Verhagen told the congress he had considered abandoning talks with the PVV but decided to carry on when he became convinced an agreement was possible.
“So I say ‘yes, let’s do it’, for the CDA and for everyone in the Netherlands,” he said.
Under the pact, radical religious leaders could be barred from entering the country, immigrants convicted of crimes would be expelled more rapidly and those who failed an integration exam would lose their residence permits.
Expressing his misgiving about the deal, Justice Minister Hirsch Ballin, a prominent CDA member, said in a newspaper column on Saturday that the PVV had “driven a wedge in society” and wanted to turn one million people into second-class citizens.
“The endorsement of Wilders as a political partner must be stopped, better late than never, before any more division in our country brings more exclusion and distress,” he wrote.
Financial markets are watching the congress for any signs the pact might collapse, prolonging efforts to form a government and adding to uncertainty over when tough spending decisions might be taken.
At the congress, several speakers spoke out against Wilders.
“I am 20 years old, from Rotterdam, a Muslim and a Dutchman, a proud Dutchman. How can I convince my friends to vote for the CDA?” a party member asked delegates.
Wilders goes on trial on Monday on charges of inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims.
His rise to prominence has raised concerns about the image of the Netherlands abroad. He has called Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan “a total freak” and said he would advocate that the Netherlands leave the European Union were Turkey to join.
Speaking in Berlin on Saturday before the CDA vote, Wilders said: “My friends, we should not accept the unacceptable as inevitable without trying to turn the tide. It is our duty as politicians to preserve our nations for our children.”
Asked on Saturday about the risks of conducting foreign policy with PVV support, VVD leader Mark Rutte stressed the Freedom Party would not be represented in the cabinet.
Wilders’ party came third in the June election behind the Liberals and Social Democrats. The Christian Democrats were fourth.
Additional reporting by Brian Rohan in Berlin; Editing by Andrew Dobbie