Animal Rights Party Poised for Historic Win in Dutch Elections

The Roman emperor Caligula is fabled to have made his horse a senator. The Dutch Party for Animals won't go that far, but looks set to score a milestone in elections Nov. 22 by becoming the first animal rights party in Europe to have its own lawmaker.

"We see this as a follow-up to liberating slaves, giving rights to women, and finally giving rights to animals," says party leader Marianne Thieme.

The Party for the Animals is poised to win at least one, and possibly two seats in the Dutch parliament--another coup for a country known for progressive legislation on decriminalizing and regulating euthanasia, soft drugs and prostitution.

"We want a constitutional amendment, guaranteeing animals the right to freedom from pain, fear, and stress caused by humans," said Thieme, 34, in an interview with The Associated Press.

Her party, known by its Dutch acronym PvdD, has adopted a down-to-earth program, sidelining more radical activists who would like to mandate vegetarianism and forbid zoos.

Its central aims are promoting "biological" farming practices--such as giving animals a minimal amount of living space--and discouraging the most inhumane of industrial farming practices, such as castration or slaughter without anesthesia.

Those goals are already endorsed by most political parties, but Thieme said support for her group has swelled since it was formed in 2002, as politicians failed to make animal welfare a priority.

"They say: people are more important. People should come first. But if you always follow that line of reasoning, animals never make it onto the agenda," she said.

The PvdD is one of 24 parties qualifying to stand for election, but only about 10 are likely to win seats. In 2003, PvdD drew 48,000 votes, just shy of the roughly 50,000 needed for a seat in the 150-member legislature.

In the most recent polls, the party stands to win around 130,000-140,000 votes, enough for two seats.

"Suddenly all the political parties are talking about animals," she said. "We're winning voters from them."

She says PvdD supporters not only come from the left, but also include traditional supporters of Christian parties who feel animal abuse is contrary to their values. Some likely voters are working-class pet owners with a strong feeling for "social justice," many who have never voted before.

"They say, I don't know what politics is. But I know what I want: I want to vote for animals," Thieme said. "I know that I care for them, I know they're abused, and that the violent way we treat animals says something about our society."

She said the broader movement suffered a setback after the murder of populist politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002 by an animal rights activist. The PvdD rejects violence, she said.

Animal rights parties exist in other western countries, notably Germany, and environmentalist parties that endorse animal-friendly policies have booked political successes around Europe.

Thieme said success in the Netherlands could help the movement elsewhere. "One of our purposes is to be an inspiration for other countries and animal rights activists," Thieme said.

She also credits her party's strength to a backlash against intensive farming in a country that is one of the world's biggest meat producers and has seen three massive outbreaks of animal disease in the past decade.

The worst was an outbreak of bird flu three years ago that led to the slaughter of 30 million chickens and infected 89 people, killing one. The government culled livestock and even ordered children's pet birds be handed over for gassing to control the spreading disease--a public relations disaster.

On issues that are not obviously animal-related, the PvdD will vote to "protect the weakest members of society," Thieme said.

Once it achieves its goal of a constitutional amendment, she said her party may simply dissolve itself. Or it may push the philosophical debate further.

"Let's begin with easing the suffering of the hundreds of millions of cows, pigs and chickens stuck in factory farming," she said. "After that, if there are people who want to stand up for the mosquitoes, then we'll talk about it."

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The Associated Press

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