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THE HAGUE, Netherlands – Former Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok, a trade unionist-turned-politician who inspired a new breed of pragmatic Social Democratic leaders who swept to power in Europe in the 1990s, has died at 80.
Current Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that Kok, who died Saturday, "was a man to look up to — if only for his long service and great importance for our country." Labor Party leader Lodewijk Asscher called Kok a "model of integrity."
Kok hitched his Dutch Labor Party to the right-wing Liberal Party and to the centrist Democrats 66 to form two ruling coalitions that steered the Netherlands to unprecedented economic success from 1994 to 2002.
Ahead of Kok's second election victory in 1998, British Prime Minister Tony Blair praised him as "one of the greatest people in politics today."
Kok's middle-of-the-road policies were also praised by former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and former French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, and by others who saw him as a potential new president of the ever-more-powerful European Commission.
He resigned as prime minister along with his entire government in 2002 following a critical report of the government's handling of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia, when Dutch U.N. peacekeepers failed to prevent the slaughter of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces.
A government-commissioned report harshly criticized Kok's administration for sending Dutch soldiers into a danger zone without a proper mandate or the weapons needed to defend about 30,000 refugees who had fled to the Dutch base in eastern Bosnia seeking protection.
One of Kok's strongest selling points in a nation that nurtures a strong distrust of authority was his image as an ordinary man made good — a trustworthy, down-to-earth realist.
During the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Kok and his wife Rita decided to see more of the United States. Turning down the Secret Service's offer of 24-hour protection, the Koks rented a Winnebago and struck out on their own. Their only concession to the security-conscious American authorities was to call the CIA daily from a sheriff's office to tell them where they were.
"Small-town sheriffs would begin telling their friends about the tourist who pretended to be the Dutch prime minister," said Erica Terpstra, former Dutch secretary of state for sport. "Kok laughed out loud about it."
Kok, the son of a Dutch carpenter, will be remembered as one of the founding fathers of the "Polder Model." It refers to the uniquely Dutch brand of consensus politics in which the government, employers and trade unions got together to thrash out pay deals. The policy saw unions agree to belt-tightening measures in harsh economic times as long as employees were allowed to share in the profits when things were going well.
A left-wing leader of the most powerful Dutch union before he moved into national politics, Kok eased himself to the right of the political spectrum during his time in government. Despite the shift, his reputation for political honesty remained unscathed.
"Personally, he drifted from far left to fairly right," Christian Democrat Bert de Vries, a former colleague, said in a 1998 interview. "I couldn't pull that off, but he believes in it. He is a survivor."
Leiden University political scientist professor Rudy Andeweg agreed, describing Kok as "the ultimate role player who has taken on new clothes in every position."
"He was a radical trade unionist, changing to a still radical leader of Social Democrats ... then a fiscal-conservative finance minister and now a conservative prime minister," Andeweg said in 1998 before Kok's second general election victory.
A self-made man from a working-class background, Kok studied at the country's prestigious Nijenrode Business School. After spending the early part of his career working for trade unions, Kok was elected to parliament's lower house in 1986, serving as parliamentary leader of the left-of-center Labor Party.
Three years later, he became finance minister in the third government of ex-Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers. He became prime minister in 1994, when the Labor Party won 37 seats in the 150-seat Parliament, knocking Lubbers' Christian Democrats out of power for the first time in the party's history.
Married and the father of three children, Kok preferred the company of his wife, Rita, to the political cliques of The Hague.