Europe 2009 – Netherlands

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The Netherlands is the largest of the Benelux countries – all of whom were founding members of the EU – and will elect 25 MEPs on Thursday 4 June, which is a reduction of two MEPs from 2004. The country uses the D’Hondt method, and while votes are counted at a council level, they are tallied nationally, so there is only one electorate. There is no threshold, meaning that the quota to win a seat is around 4%. Voting is voluntary, so polls are open from 7:30am to 9:00pm in an effort to get as many people to the polls as possible, especially considering recent apathy towards European elections. Most of the country votes using special voting computers so the results will be known very quickly.

It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that I lived in the Netherlands from 1997-2005 and was a member of GroenLinks, the largest Green party there from 2001-2005, though I recently rejoined. I am a dual citizen, so I was able to cast a postal ballot in these elections.

First, let’s start with the current breakdown of the current 27 Dutch MEPs:

  • Christian Democrats (EPP): 7
  • Labour (PES): 7
  • Liberals – Freedom and Democracy (ALDE): 4
  • Greens (EG/EFA): 2
  • Socialist Party (EUL-NGL): 2
  • Transparent Europe (EG/EFA): 2
  • Christian Union / Calvinist Reformed (IND/DEM): 2
  • Democrats ’66 (ALDE): 1

Transparent Europe, led by Paul van Buitenen, a former EU employee who blew the whistle on a massive corruption scandal in the early 90s, has imploded due to infighting and will not be taking part in these elections.The Party for the Animals, an animal rights party, narrowly missed out on a seat last time and could come close again. It currently holds two seats in the national parliamen.

All eyes, however, will be on the right-wing nationalist Party for Freedom which is led at a national level by Geert Wilders, a former Liberal MP. He left his party after making several Islamophobic statements and sat as an independent until the 2006 elections, when his newly-formed Party of Freedom won 9 seats out of 150. At the moment, the Party for Freedom is polling 15-16% of the vote in national polls which would give them 24 seats and make them the third-largest party at the next elections. In the EU polls, it’s expected to win 3 seats (instead of 4 as the national polls would suggest) because pro-EU voters are far more likely to go to the polls than Eurosceptics like Wilders’s supporters. Nevertheless, current opinion polls suggest that Labour will lose 3 of their 7 seats and the Liberals to be reduced by one to 3 seats; the beneficiaries will be the Democrats (+1 seat) and the Party for Freedom (+3 seats). No other seats are expected to change hands.

It’s worth looking at how much Dutch politics has changed in the last ten years, because it explains to some extent why someone like Geert Wilders can have such a strong following in a country usually seen as one of the world’s most tolerant and progressive. Back in 1999, the Dutch goverment was made up of a “purple” coalition between Labour, Liberals and Democrats which had just won a second term in office. The Christian Democrats were in opposition for the first time in decades, and weren’t sure what do with themselves. This led to the Greens being seen as the official opposition; in the 1998 national elections they increased their numbers from 5 to 11. The EU elections of 1999 reflected this situation as the Greens increased their representation from 1 to 4 MEPs while the coalition parties and the Christian Democrats lost seats or remained stable.

By the 2004 EU elections, however, the Dutch political system had been shaken up by the right-wing populist Pim Fortuyn who was assassinated by an animal-rights activist a week before the 2002 national elections. Fortuyn struck a chord with voters sceptical of the pro-immigration policies of the major parties, and those who felt that politicians were not in touch with the rest of the populace. His party, Pim Fortuyn’s List (LPF), won 26 seats at the elections to become the second-largest party in parliament and entered into a governing coalition with the Christian Democrats and Liberals, forming arguably the most right-wing government the Netherlands had ever seen. It did not last long, as the LPF was a fledgling party and massive infighting ensued once it lost its charismatic leader. The coalition fell apart in a few months and new elections held in early 2003 saw the LPF reduced to 8 seats as the Christian Democrats and the Liberals formed a new coalition with the Democrats. This make-up continued until 2006, when the Democrats withdrew their support for controversial immigration minister Rita Verdonk (Liberals) over her treatment of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, former Liberal MP, women’s rights campaigner and outspoken critic of Islam. This eventually led to new elections, and the current coalition goverment is made up of the Christian Democrats, Labour, and the Christian Union.

In the middle of all this mess, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was brutally murdered by an Islamic extremist in broad daylight while cycling to work in Amsterdam. Van Gogh was notorious for insulting as many people and groups of people as possible, calling Muslims “goatfuckers”, and referring to Jesus as “that stinking fish from Nazareth”. He had also been taken to court accused of making anti-Semitic statements. Van Gogh’s murder further fuelled xenophobic and Islamophobic sentiments among some of the populace.

Meanwhile, Geert Wilders left the Liberals, formed the Party for Freedom (attracting several former LPF members and supporters) and began a campaign of what can only be described at times as Muslim-baiting. While Pim Fortuyn called Islam a “backward” culture, Wilders has gone several steps further, making an anti-Qu’ran film called Fitna and calling for a ban on the construction of new mosques in the Netherlands as well as a five-year ban on immigrants from “non-western” nations from entering the Netherlands. He claims to hate Islam, but not Muslims in general. The Party for Freedom will most likely join one of the Eurosceptic groups in the EU parliament, but Wilders has denied any affiliation with neo-fascist parties like the National Front in France.

Which brings us to 2009. With the next set of national elections over a year away, there is still plenty of time for another shake-up should anything happen to Wilders, who will face court soon accused of inciting hatred and encouraging discrimination. He has also received numerous death threats and is constantly guarded. It’s hard to tell how long it will take for Dutch politics to stabilise again.

If this post raised some eyebrows in interest, the book Murder in Amsterdam by Ian Buruma is an excellent overview of the last several years in Dutch politics.

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9 COMMENTS

  1. The SGP are an anomaly in Dutch politics. They’ve been sitting on 2 or 3 seats in the national parliament for decades; most of their support comes from a few isolated (as much as you can be isolated in NL), incredibly religious communities like Urk and Staphorst. Up until recently, women were not allowed to become party members, and the party has yet to run its first female candidate at any level of government.

    If you asked them for a copy of their policies they’d probably hand you a Bible, and that would be about right.

  2. So which do you think is the best way to deal with the extreme right – include them in government like in the Netherlands (and hope they implode / give them the opportunity to expand) or exclude them like in Belgium (and let them make whatever promises they want, safe in the knowledge that they will never have to deliver)?

    And any thoughts on why the extreme right is just so strong in Flanders? The average VB voter has lower education and socio-economic status, yet there are no similar parties in Walloon, which has overall more poverty.

  3. I think it depends on how strong they are.

    In Austria, the Freedom Party had become so strong that a permanent grand coalition had become the status quo, with the FPO being the main opposition party. When the OVP brought them into government in 2000 it quickly deflated them (although the FPO and BZO have since recovered that ground they lost).

  4. That’s an interesting question, Adrian, and I don’t know the answer. It would be interesting to have a look how various countries have dealt with parties of the far right, and compare outcomes.

    In Poland two fringe parties which could be broadly described as “far right”, the League of Polish Families and Self-Defence (SD considers itself a left-wing party, but in fact is well on the right of the political spectrum), won significant victories at the Polish parliamentary elections in 2001. They went on to increase their votes and representation at the 2005 elections (as well as doing very well in the EU elections of 2004), and entered a coalition with the deeply conservative Law and Justice Party (led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski) in 2006. The chaos that ensued, meant that early elections were scheduled for late 2007, and these two parties got hammered (SD fell from around 11% in 2005 to just over 1% in 2007, LPF fell from 8% to 1%). I have little doubt that had these parties simply continued as opposition parties, seeking to capitalise on the fears and paranoia of certain groups in society, they would have remained in a strong position for a good while longer. Their participation in govt. only worked to expose them for who they really were, and put to rest the myth, that they could actually achieve something promising for Poland.

  5. I’ve heard that position here (Flanders) too. My worry is that this rests on two assumptions:

    1) The far right party won’t be able to cause lasting damage during the period that it is in government

    and

    2) Popularity will fall once they gain a position in government (the counter is that it is quite easy to achieve short-term popularity gains, eg massive spending, immigration controls, etc, as the negative effects of these policies can take years to come along).

    I hate to use the example of the Nazis, but I think it is relevant because the history of the Nazi era directly influences Flemish perception of VB. The Nazis didn’t get into government via an outright majority, instead they were invited in as part of a coalition. Short-term popularity boosts and stamping out the opposition then set them up to gain outright majority.

  6. Broadly speaking, I think it is often better to bring a far-right party into a governing coalition and hope that it implodes rather than run the risk of it growing large enough to govern in its own right. However, it depends on the situation.

    Take the example of the Netherlands: the LPF became the second-largest party in parliament in 2002, and therefore had a fairly good claim to inclusion in the governing coalition. The Christian Democrats (CDA) and Liberals (VVD), who were the largest and third-largest parties, respectively, decided to go ahead with this. The VVD had been in various governing coalitions for the better part of the last two decades, and the CDA had been in government for most of the 20th century, so both parties knew what they were doing. It soon became clear that the LPF were a bunch of opportunists, and without the leadership of Fortuyn, conflicting egos soon led to internal spats which were all over the media. It is widely believed that the CDA and VVD did very little to halt this implosion (they may even have encouraged it), and were glad to have an excuse to bring about the downfall of the government.

    As I mentioned in my article, the elections of 2003 effectively saw the end of the LPF – they were reduced to 8 seats and sent to the opposition benches. In 2006 they failed to win a single seat. This is saying something, as the quota for a seat in the lower house is 0.7%, which came to around 65,000 votes nationally in 2006 (in 2002, the LPF polled 1.6 million votes).

    The current situation with Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom (PVV) has its similarities, but by debuting in parliament with 9 seats (5th largest party), Wilders has not over-extended and has had time to build a stronger party structure and a clearer platform than the LPF ever had. However, should anything happen to Wilders, the most likely scenario is that the PVV will fade away, as there is no obvious successor.

    It also depends on where the votes came from in the first place. The LPF’s original 26 seats were mostly a result of disillusioned Labour voters registering a protest vote. When the young, popular Wouter Bos assumed the Labour leadership after the 2002 elections, the party was widely seen to have undergone a generational change and in 2003 it re-gained almost all the seats it had lost the year before. Curiously, this cycle is set to repeat at the next elections, with Labour losing seats to the PVV in current polls. I’m not sure why this is, but I feel that many people see a vote for Wilders is an anti-establishment vote (ironic since Wilders’s resume consists almost exclusively of political jobs).

    Generally speaking, far-right parties are very bad at the art of compromise – their platforms often frame things in terms of “zero-tolerance” and similar absolutes – so taking part in a coalition government can be very frustrating for them, especially when the other parties will usually be more experienced at navigating the complexities of government.

  7. On the other hand, the LPF is a unique situation in that the founder was assassinated. If he had survived, it is quite possible that Fortuyn could have kept the party together and increased its electoral success. The other factor that tends to get ignored is the social acceptability of voting far right. When the far right is excluded from the political process as neo-Nazi and fascist, the rest of the country (left and right) is sending a message about social acceptability. If the far right is accepted as a political partner the social stigma against voting far right is reduced – when moderate centre parties are willing to form a coalition with the far right it is hard for their supporters to argue that neo-Nazism is just unacceptable.

    Perhaps the moderate elements of the US Republican party would be an interesting counter example? By embracing the Religious Right to grab power they increased their success, but ultimately they lost control over the party. Don’t feed the monster?

  8. Point taken, which is why I guess it comes down to a case-by-case basis.

    Both the LPF and PVV are not your run-of-the-mill far-right party like say, the National Front in France or the BNP in the UK, so while I probably would advocate that the BNP and NF are locked out of government, I guess I’m less concerned about the PVV actually being able to follow through with some of their more abhorrent policies. And again, both parties lack a solid structure.

    In Dutch politics, I don’t ever see a true far-right party ever getting enough votes to pose a threat. The closest was the Centre Democrats in the 90s, but their peak was 3 seats before they were utterly discredited by the time the 1998 election came around.

    So maybe my argument is that it depends on how established the party is in the sense of having a proper infrastructure, decent-sized and loyal membership, etc. The more established parties (I imagine the Vlaams Blok is one example) are probably more dangerous; I’d support a cordon sanitaire then. Younger parties which have over-extended themselves with a few massive wins are vulnerable and their momentum can be taken away once they’re forced into adopting the discipline and unity required when governing in a coalition.

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