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The Dutch elections – making sense of its fractures

It was the al Qaeda attacks in 2001, followed in quick succession by two political murders, that completely altered not just the landscape but the logic of Dutch politics.

lead lead Surinamese radio and television entertainer Sylvana Simons entering politics to contest discrimination. During an interview by Wilfred Genee. De Balie, Amsterdam, 26 Nov. 2016. Wikicommons/De Balie, Amsterdam. Some rights reserved.Much to everyone’s surprise, it turns out that this is not the election we expected. At the start of the campaign season, with the right-wing populist Geert Wilders riding high in the polls, the prediction had been that it would come down to a race between the conservative Liberals and Geert Wilders’ populist, right-wing Party for Freedom (PVV), leaving all others in the dust.

Following on the heels of the US election of Trump and the UK vote for Brexit, and with right-wing populists in France and Germany looking well-positioned for upcoming elections, all international attention was trained on Wilders.

There was much speculation that if Wilders won the elections, the Netherlands would be the next country to withdraw from the EU (Nexit), setting off a chain-reaction across the continent that could very possibly lead to the EU’s collapse and a new continental political regime. Instead, within a few short weeks, the election has turned into a massive scrum.

Instead, within a few short weeks, the election has turned into a massive scrum. At this point, on the cusp of election day, support for Wilders has declined and the Liberals are ahead by a few seats, followed by the center-right Christian Democrats (CDA) and a flurry of progressive parties – the Democrats of ’66 (D66), the GreenLeft, and the Socialists – all breathing down their necks in close formation. It is a tight yet unpredictable race.

At the same time, nearly three-quarters of the voters still at this moment have multiple parties in mind and are not sure which one exactly will get their vote.

Labour Party losses

In any and all cases, though, the Labour Party – which has been governing in a coalition with the Liberals for the past four years – looks set to suffer an astounding historical loss. Now holding 38 seats in Parliament, they will be lucky to win more than ten this time around, as voters punish the party fiercely for collaborating so effectively in cutting back the welfare state.

Crucial to note here is that even the most successful party, the Liberals, are only netting about 17% of the vote (25 seats), while Wilders is polling at 14%, very similar to the Christian Democrats, even as the next set of political parties has only slightly smaller margins. In other words, whatever the result, the outcome will require that a coalition of four to five parties be formed in order to create an effective government. This form of proportional representation is the opposite of a winner-take-all-system. Mandating negotiations and compromises across ideological and policy lines – along with the pragmatic bracketing of principles – it variously contains or excludes extremes the better to ensure that the country does not lurch too quickly in one or another direction. The Dutch political field exploded in 2000 with the entry of the gay anti-Islam populist Pim Fortuyn and has never been the same since.

In total, there are 28 parties in the running, though ‘only’ about thirteen to fifteen parties look like they will win seats in Parliament. Even by Dutch standards this fragmentation of Parliament is quite extreme. Long dominated by three centrist parties – Christian Democrat, Labour and Liberal – to the point of utter, boring predictability for years on end, the Dutch political field exploded in 2000 with the entry of the gay anti-Islam populist Pim Fortuyn and has never been the same since. The first rumblings began before 9/11, but it was the al Qaeda attacks in 2001, followed in quick succession by two political murders (first of Pim Fortuyn by an anti-racist, animal rights activist and then Theo van Gogh by a militant Muslim) that completely altered not just the landscape but the logic of Dutch politics.

Austerity with a vengeance

It became de rigeur to decry the hegemony of a politically correct “Left elite” and to loudly declaim that immigrants from the global South and Islam were problematic, incompatible with western society and wilfully resisting integration, while simultaneously asserting that only the truly bold and courageous dared to state such truths. The violent deaths of Fortuyn and van Gogh, after three centuries without a political murder, legitimated histrionic performances in a society more generally known for phlegmatic pragmatism underscored by (petit) bourgeois sensibilities. Many careers were built on such tactics, most especially that of Geert Wilders.

Living underground in hiding since the murder of van Gogh in 2004, he has been offering the example of his life as a testimony to the dangers facing the Dutch and the West in the face of immigration and Islamic violence. Over the years, he has self-radicalized dramatically; while in 2001 he still explicitly distanced himself from Pim Fortuyn and refused to denounce Islam and Muslims as such, he has now become a politician who wants to shut all mosques, ban the Koran, abolish dual-citizenship, encourage Muslims to emigrate and denaturalize any dual citizen who commits a crime.

At the same time, following all this upheaval and in line with ‘Third Way’ politics, Labour shifted rightward, even as the Liberals became the largest party. The result has been an age of liberalization, austerity measures, and cutbacks to the welfare state. These have been legitimated by and driven the introduction of a crude, rather reductive, individualist-corporatist economism as the guiding logic for reforming labor relations, housing, urban development, education, research funding, the arts, international relations, health care, immigrant regimes, and environmental regulations. Ostensibly this was necessary to deal with the 2007/2008 financial crisis, but in fact the Dutch carried out neoliberal austerity with such a vengeance that for years economic growth was noticeably worse compared to neighbors to the west and east.

The consequence is that while the Dutch are among the richest and most egalitarian countries in the world, much of its population has been experiencing levels of unsettledness, insecurity, stagnating incomes and shrinking futures for their children that mirror developments in less wealthy and less economically egalitarian western countries.

This is crucial to understanding the politics of existential crisis that has been a constant for the past fifteen years in the Netherlands and its significance to the current election. Housing stress offers a particularly fine – though neglected – example, particularly in comparison to the US. As a number of economists and journalists have uncovered, one of the key issues driving Trump voters in the United States, including wealthier ones, was increasing financial stress and distress related to home ownership. In particular, those with heavier mortgage payments relative to income were more inclined to support Trump, even as those with negative equity (in which homeowners are paying off mortgage loans higher than the current value of their house) were more likely to switch from the Democratic to the Republican party and to vote for Trump. As in the US, in the Netherlands housing has become drastically unaffordable to growing groups of people.

As in the US, in the Netherlands housing has become drastically unaffordable to growing groups of people. Following Liberal policies, the stock of social housing has shrunk by nearly 300,000 since 2009. During the same time, the number of people requiring social housing increased by several hundred thousand under pressure from shrinking incomes. So too did cutbacks in the number of homes caring for senior citizens, the mentally ill, and handicapped; stricter mortgage requirements; increases in temporary contracts that make one ineligible for mortgages; and increases in the number of refugees.

That is to say, the very same liberalization that introduced growing precarity (flex-work) in the labor market and reduced state care, at the same time reduced the stock of social housing available to those who were most directly experiencing the wrenching effects of these policies.

Worse yet, the liberalization of the rental market means that since 2009, yearly rental costs have increased on average by €900, even as the combined effect of the economic crisis, austerity measures and labor market liberalization has meant that the income of renters has decreased by €2200/year. (I am taking these figures from an excellent Dutch-language article by Mirjam de Rijk.)[1] At the same time, the requirements for gaining access to social housing were further restricted, increasingly locking out the middle class. Finding affordable housing is, then, an increasingly desperate endeavor for both low- and middle-income groups.

Blaming refugees

The Liberals and Wilders have done everything they can to blame refugees for these developments, often with great success. A perfect example is the picturesque fishing village of Volendam, where tourists love to visit and have their pictures taken in traditional attire. For years, the village has stood out in elections for its disproportional support of Wilders. The very close-knit relations and high levels of social trust that in other regions such as northern Friesland have limited Wilders’ success here appear to boost it, and as elections approach one or more villagers will be sure to appear on one or another television talk show to affirm their warm support.

Volendam. Flickr/Jose A. Some rights reserved.Journalists who stop by the village for a day, can quickly gather anti-Muslim and anti-Europe quotations, drawing their own conclusions. But just possibly this is much too superficial. Once you find out that the community has a longstanding feud with the government regarding the placement of refugees in rental housing, the material base to the prejudice suddenly makes sense. Out of roughly 12,000 properties in the village, 1,400 are social housing, for which there are long waiting lists. The government, whose policy is to spread refugees proportionally across the country, has demanded in recent years that Volendam take in several hundred refugees. The villagers have protested loudly: after all, they have been paying taxes for years and patiently waiting their turn to get an apartment: why should refugees be able to jump the line, and get housing for free at that?

Out of roughly 12,000 properties in the village, 1,400 are social housing, for which there are long waiting lists.

For the villagers, the housing competition both instigates and legitimates their prejudices against foreign intruders and the government. The government, however, blames the housing corporation for not building enough rental apartments and has told the village to deal with it. Notably, the government here ignores the fact that the whole thrust of its policy has been to entice housing corporations to do just what was done here: shift their emphasis from rental properties to home ownership.

Now imagine such scenes spread all across the country – as housing possibilities decrease drastically, even as the felt need for such housing and economic precarity more generally increase – and the support for Wilders and antagonism to refugees begins to take on more concrete shape. Rather than simply Islamophobia or simply material competition for scarce housing and social services, it is the dynamic way in which prejudice, fear and material competition reinforce one another that helps to explain the persistent attraction of Wilders.

Wilders’ “tsunamis” and the wars of religion

A rather different but complementary factor in understanding the Netherlands’ politics of crisis is the country’s high exposure to global flows and developments – as an export and trading nation – in combination with its miniature size (a mere 17 million people on 41,500 square kilometers, much of it below sea-level). This graphically reinforces the sense of precarity: the Dutch never forget that they live by the grace of dykes protecting them from a deadly sea, nor that they are a miniscule and weak country in a vast world. The intense psychological impact of this aspect is often hard for those from larger countries to imagine. By way of comparison, the area of the United States is 237 times as large. What the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai dubbed “the fear of small numbers” – by which a society’s anxieties around globalization are projected onto local minorities, who are assumed to be under the control of outside forces – is an anxiety always-already waiting to be triggered. Notably, Wilders is particularly adept in his use of water metaphors to describe Muslims and refugees as unstoppable “flows,” “floods,” and “tsunamis.” Wilders is particularly adept in his use of water metaphors to describe Muslims and refugees as unstoppable “flows,” “floods,” and “tsunamis.”

Further pressure on the Netherlands comes from the extremely high levels of diversity it encompasses, particularly when compared to other small European countries. Amsterdam itself has 180 nationalities, leading it often to top the charts as the most internationally diverse city in the world. At the national level, 22% of the Dutch population is either a recent immigrant or of recent immigrant descent (including the 5-6% of the population that is Muslim). At the same time, historically, the majority of Dutch, some 98%, have foreign ancestors – ranging from sixteenth century Ottoman traders, to the more well-known Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, English Puritans, French Huguenots, Scandinavian sailors, Italian bankers, Polish mineworkers, and German Lutheran laborers and traders among many others, along with (post-)colonial immigrants from the Indonesia, Suriname, the Antilles, Turkey, Morocco, India and China.

The religious fractures across the country only add further to this. Even as the conclusion to the vicious religious wars between Protestants and Catholics was foundational to the Netherlands as an independent state in 1648, it has continued to shape the Dutch psyche, along with (post-religious) political identities and landscapes. It is no accident that Geert Wilders gets most of his support from the historically Catholic South, which for centuries has had a deeply ambivalent relation to the centers of political and economic power in Protestant “Holland” up north.

A hazy National Us with a gas problem

All this makes the notion of Dutch national origins, even when invoked by nationalists, an utterly vague and hazy one.

And this raises a final crucial component of current conflicts, namely the economic geography of the Netherlands. On the one hand, the Netherlands has for centuries been one of the most urbanized countries in the world – a distinguishing factor is the way in which those cities are spread around the country.

As in the recent US elections and UK Brexit referenda, there is a clear voting pattern to be discerned in which cities – particularly university cities – are inclined to vote more progressively than either monochrome suburbs filled with those fearful of the cities they see in the news or shrinking countryside towns and villages losing their youth to the cities and social services to austerity.

In practice it’s more subtle than this though, as the geographer Josse de Voogd has shown, and voting patterns in cities break down neighborhood by neighborhood along lines of class, income, consumption, ethnicity, and region. At the same time, as his national political maps make clear, the Netherlands too has its rustbelts, post-industrial areas of shrinking possibility, that track anti-establishment voting patterns rather closely. Whether looking at those who voted against closer EU-ties with Ukraine (the Ukraine Referendum) or those voting for Wilders or those voting for the Socialists, it is precisely those areas that show up with greatest intensity: the Limburg (ex-)mining region in the south; the post-industrial areas to the south of Rotterdam, and northeast Groningen, pressed against the German border, the most destitute area of all, with a higher density of children growing up in poverty than any other sub-region. The province of Groningen for years has delivered great profits to the Dutch government from tapping underground reservoirs of gas.

This is particularly striking since the province of Groningen for years has delivered great profits to the Dutch government from tapping underground reservoirs of gas. In 1995, the government created the Economic Structure Enhancing Fund (FES) as a way of putting aside some of the profits in order to invest them in infrastructure and, later, to strengthen the knowledge economy. A subsequent investigation revealed, however, that of all the FES funds only 1% had been invested in the region itself and 88% had gone to the already-rich west of the country.

Even under conditions of great wealth production in Groningen, the historic impoverishment of East Groningen persisted relentlessly. Adding insult to injury, the Dutch government has done little to address the concerns of those whose houses have been damaged by the earthquakes that gas extraction brings. That is to say, even a rich miniature country like the Netherlands is deeply marked, even scarred, by the capitalist logic of exploiting center and languishing periphery. Little wonder that at the (sub-)regional level, these should be the areas most likely to be enticed by Wilders’ anti-establishment siren song. The fascinating aspect here is that Wilders has not picked up the issue: his program ignores it completely, possibly because his strong ties to the south make northern issues less enticing.

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“I understand completely that people think: if you reject our country so fundamentally, I’d rather if you left. Because I have that feeling too: act normal or get out.”

The Netherlands has the strange quality of being able to be simultaneously behind and ahead of the times. This is the country that so early legislated gay marriage, euthanasia, legalized prostitution and pot consumption. But also the country where the German poet Heinrich Heine wanted to go when the world ends because, he quipped, everything in Holland happens 50 years later.

The Netherlands today has one of the most viciously racist public domains. Activists who protest Black Pete; Black politicians, artists, writers and public figures who protest discrimination; Muslims critical of the west and Muslims who are simply visible as Muslims are structurally, consistently subjected to the most vile, the most aggressive stream of hate wishing them violence, rape, torture and death. When the Surinamese radio and television entertainer Sylvana Simons entered politics some months ago to contest discrimination, the putrid stream of hatred unleashed on her was so extensive that her formal police complaint contained literally thousands of examples, extending to a video inserting her into lynching photos.

Dutch police and politicians have for years openly advocated ethnic profiling, even as police perpetrating violence against citizens of color have largely gone scot-free. Two officers involved in the shocking death of Mitch Henriquez were fired, but not prosecuted, much less convicted. Other police have acted with great violence towards activists and protesters such as the poet Jerry Afriye, whose work as a security guard was made impossible after the policed attempted to prosecute him (wrongfully) for attacking a police officer. Soon after a judge fully cleared Afriye of all charges in a highly unusual decision, the police once again arrested Afriye, with video images showing one officer punching him in the face.

Rutte’s open letter

At the same time, the Liberal Party of prime minister Mark Rutte has taken over the language of crude nationalism from Wilders. Early in the campaign season he published an open letter describing:

“our growing discomfort when people abuse our freedoms to mess things up here, even though they came to our country for such freedoms. People who do not want to adapt, who disparage our ways of doing things and reject our values … [who] call normal Dutch racists. I understand completely that people think: if you reject our country so fundamentally, I’d rather if you left. Because I have that feeling too: act normal or get out.”

Coming from the Prime Minister, who is meant in the Dutch tradition to stand above social conflicts the better to resolve them, this letter hit those Dutch born and bred here but being addressed as visitors and strangers who might be ejected at any moment, with particular and brutal harshness. To criticize racism, Rutte said, is to be un-Dutch. It is not normal. And you have no place here.

This year for the very first time there are two minority parties participating in the elections: the largely Turkish-Dutch Denk and Sylvana Simons’ multi-racial Artikel 1. Their simple existence has infuriated many, who accuse them rather strikingly of “racializing politics.” As if, before this – notwithstanding the looming influence of Wilders and the willingness of many parties and politicians to take over his pejorative take on Muslims and Moroccan immigrants – Dutch politics was neither racial nor racist.

Rather the opposite is true: their critical presence makes visible at the national, public level just how racialized and racist our politics has been and how little Dutch society has been concerned to protect its brown and Muslims citizens from violence, denigration and discrimination. While these two parties themselves look likely to just win one or two seats, the effects of their presence are already being felt. Two other parties – D66 and the GreenLeft, and even at moments the Labour Party – have taken to making forceful, explicit and unapologetic arguments for embracing pluralism and diversity as an essential element of Dutch society.

Jesse Klaver, Groen links, 2014. Wikicommons/BoelensLeon. Some right reserved.Missing still in their platforms is any criticism of the brutal violence facing critical Blacks and Muslims who speak up and the banal stream of indignities to which so many are exposed at an everyday level. But still, it is a start.

And just maybe, Wilders notwithstanding, it is a sign that it will not take 50 years for Holland’s political elite to join the anti-racist present.


[1] See also, in English - http://www.dutchnews.nl/news/archives/2017/02/the-big-election-issues-dutch-housing-market-under-mounting-pressure/

Women’s March for a United Netherlands in Amsterdam. March 11, 2017. NurPhoto/Press Association. All rights reserved.

About the author

Markha Valenta lives in Amsterdam and works at Radboud University Nijmegen. Her current work concerns the politics of religion and culture in global cities, international relations and secular democracies, with a focus on north America, western Europe, and India. A corresponding concern of the last decade has been the accommodation and discrimination of Muslim minorities in secular democracies since 9/11. She has also worked for the Scientific Council for Government Policy and is a regular participant in Dutch debates on these issues.

Her openDemocracy column is Inter Alia.


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