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.