After five years of propping up a coalition led by the right wing People’s Party (VVD), the chickens finally came home to roost for the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) in the 2017 elections last week. The Netherlands’ formerly largest social democratic party has gone the way of Greece’s PASOK, or indeed Scottish Labour.
In the previous election in 2012, the PvdA had seen off a strong challenge from their left by the Socialist Party by shifting rhetorically to the left. They explicitly claimed that a vote for them was the only way to stop a VVD government. However, after coming second, they promptly became the junior coalition partner to the VVD, implementing harsh austerity cuts to healthcare and the welfare system, in direct contradiction to their election promises. Like their colleagues across Europe, they have been punished harshly for their two-faced conduct. The electoral slaughter reduced them from the second largest party with 38 seats, to seventh, with just nine.
The PvdA’s PASOKification was the major unreported reality of this story. World attention had focused on this contest to an unprecedented extent for a Dutch election, following months in which the far right, racist Party for Freedom (PVV), who’s founder and only official member is Geert Wilders, was shown as holding a strong lead in polls. The mainstream media offered its usual combination of fascination, disgust and flattery that they have shown to similar figures of the resurgence of far right “respectability” taking place in the Euro-American world. Anxious think-pieces wondered if the Netherlands was about to “go fascist”, and if following 2016’s Trump and Brexit surprises, 2017 would bring us Wilders and Le Pen. Wilders’ election hype was increased late last year when he was convicted of inciting racial discrimination, following his leading a chant of “Less Moroccans” at a rally during the previous local elections.
The PVV ran in this election on a one page manifesto, pledging to refuse refugees, close Dutch borders and leave the EU, as well as an end to all public support for renewable energy (they are also climate change deniers). While many of the international media’s instant experts dubbed their leader the “Dutch Trump”, the truth is that Trump is more like the American Wilders. The dyed-blonde demagogue has been harnessing racism and Islamophobia for political gain far longer than his US comrade.
He is a pioneer of a move made by many similar figures across the Euro-American world: shifting the focus of racist politics from biology to “culture”, attempting to pose as the defenders of a welfare state supposedly embattled by ‘immigrants’ (as opposed to right wing politicians), and of (in this case) ‘Dutch’ values. Ironically, these are defended as liberalism and tolerance, on the supposed basis of which others must be excluded. The ideology is contradictory, yet electorally powerful. His acolytes in an emerging international alliance of far right forces have followed his rise keenly, and the PVV’s major donations in this election have been US-based conservative groups such as the David Horowitz Foundation, who have given game changing amounts of money in a country where most parties depend on public funds.
In the face of this threat, the ‘mainstream’ right VVD decided to personalise the election between their leader, the managerial Prime Minister Mark Rutte, and Wilders, attempting to beat him by shamelessly stealing his rhetoric. This famously included Rutte taking out a full page advert in newspapers in which he wrote that ‘something was up’ in the Netherlands, and that ‘some people’ didn’t want to respect Dutch values. This was concluded with a sentence that became the VVD’s election slogan: Act Normal (or leave).
One VVD poster offered voters a series of multiple choices. These included “sticking your head in the sand” or “using your head, act normal, vote VVD”. However, a further option was to “wear a head rag [kopvodden]”, a derogatory term for headscarves coined by the PVV.
Even more seriously, Rutte’s government engineered a diplomatic spat with Turkey in order to appear tough and “governmental” in the week of the election. Turkish government Ministers sought to enter the Netherlands to address rallies of Turkish communities eligible to vote in a referendum on extending the powers of Turkish President Erdogan. The government denied permission for this, escorting one Minister to the frontier and expelling her from the country, and deploying riot police to violently disperse Turkish voters who had assembled in Rotterdam.
While the regime in Turkey may itself be in many ways deeply anti-democratic and unpleasant, the fact remains that these actions seemed to be aimed primarily at cynical electioneering. It was successful, with the VVD losing a few seats but still emerging as the largest party, and the automatic leader of whatever coalition can be assembled. As political scientist Cas Mudde put it, there was a stream of “disappointed journalists headed for Schiphol airport” following the VVD’s claim that it had defeated “the wrong kind of populism” – theirs, presumably, representing the socially acceptable version of the same politics.
Having expected, feared and in some part secretly hoped for the PVV to emerge as the Netherlands’ largest party, the international media were satisfied to write up the result as a defeat for Wilders. But the man himself seemed far from cowed, tweeting in the style of a cartoon villain:
“Rutte isn’t done with me yet, and won’t be for a long time!”
Indeed, while it was not as far as he had hoped to advance, the election was hardly a defeat for Wilders. He moved from third to second place, increasing five seats. His rhetoric looks set to dominate the political scene even further over the coming five years, with a right wing government that will be determined to steal his clothes. Worse still, an even further-right split off from the PVV, the Forum for Democracy, also won two seats, placing a leading figure of academic racism and violent misogyny, the “alt-right” rape apologist Thierry Baudet, in parliament.
For those on the left, it is hard to mourn the sight of deceitful Labour politicians getting their comeuppance, with schadenfreude evident across social media. However, the sad fact is that most of the seats lost were in fact captured by parties to the right (or the far right) of Labour. Despite international commentary relieved at the failure of the PVV to do as well as some had feared, the truth remains that this is a more right wing and racist parliament than its predecessor, and will almost certainly lead to another right wing VVD-led government, committed to heavy austerity and the scapegoating of Muslims and immigrants.
For outside observers, the flipside of the fascination with Wilders and his supposed defeat has been the breathless reception of the leader of the Green Left (GL) party leader Jesse Klaver, who it seems it was impossible to mention without an obligatory reference to his alleged resemblance to Canadian Prime Minister and political heartthrob Justin Trudeau. Given this simplistic hook, many reports spoke as if GL had won the election, following their modest increase to fourteen seats.
The party was formed by a merger of former Communist, pacifist and radical Christian parties. Despite the left in its title, it has moved consistently towards liberalism in recent years, voting for relaxations on workers’ rights, the end of student grants, and for the Netherlands’ mission in Afghanistan. Although this election saw them move left slightly, and also capturing much mainstream pro-European and anti-Wilders sentiment, it remains to be seen what they can positively achieve as the joint fifth largest party, following the right, centrists, the Christian party and the far-right.
Other success stories of the night were the Party for Animals, which increased its seats from two to five, also garnering respect for their thoughtful, ecologically focused left wing programme, and Denk (Think in Dutch), a new party formed by former PvdA MP’s of Turkish descent. Denk is one of two parties explicitly focused on anti-racism and the rights of immigrant communities. Their formation follows a poisonous climate of Islamophobia in public life, with many of those targeted frustrated with the mainstream Dutch left. Denk was co-founded by actor and TV presenter Slyvana Simons, but she later left following differences about policies related to gender and LGBT rights, as well as controversy over the party’s links to Turkey’s ruling AKP party. She and others have formed the left wing, feminist and anti-racist Artikel 1 in December, which failed to gain any seats.
While these smaller parties do offer some beacons of hope, the fact is sadly that their importance has been greatly exaggerated in foreign coverage. Taking the combined vote of the parties to the left of Labour together, the fact remains that 17 seats of those lost by the PvdA were not picked up by the other left parties. Indeed, the main beneficiaries of radicalisation have been the far right, and the right that aims to ape them. Apart from this, other voters flocked to centrist and liberal parties, desperate to defend their own idea of Dutch normality. The left finished behind these forces.
The formation of parties based primarily on anti-racism is a vivid demonstration of the failure of the mainstream Dutch left to adapt to a 21st century political climate which has been dominated by questions of race, immigration and Islamophobia. Rather than confronting these head on and building strong alliances, many have capitulated, aiming to find a left wing gloss for “legitimate concerns” about immigration. The Christian Democrats, one of three elected religious parties and now in a position to enter government with the VVD, hilariously claimed that Islam contradicted the “thousands-years-old Christian-Jewish tradition of equality between men and women.” The VVD infamously won this election on the slogan “Act Normal”, but PvdA leader Lodewijk Asscher also spoke of “dykes bursting” with floods of immigrants, and even the Socialist Party called for an end to freedom of movement ‘to protect Dutch workers.’
The Socialist Party should have been poised to capitalise on Labour’s demise. With origins as a Maoist protest group, the party has built a national profile through consistent work on the community level over recent decades. However, as they have grown they have also moderated their politics considerably in an effort to appear “respectable”, even governing alongside the right at the municipal level in Amsterdam. As such, this year they failed to capture the public anger with Labour, and lost one seat, leaving them joint fifth with GL on 14 seats. They also have proved singularly unable to respond to the climate of racism, reducing all issues to ‘bread and butter problems’ and refusing to address a growing anti-racist movement.
Throughout the developed world, the left is confronted with the problem of how to confront and defeat the rising forces of far-right populism. The Dutch left is a vivid illustration of the bankruptcy of accepting their ideas, and failing to do the hard work of exposing the real culprits for poverty and inequality, as well as building alliances among their victims.
For international observers concerned at these developments, perhaps the first thing they can do is make the effort to look beyond the greatly simplified coverage offered by an international media so keen to offer positive “success stories” on their rush home that they have greatly exaggerated the impact of the “Dutch Trudeau”. Like the Facebook urban legend of the all-conquering Icelandic revolution, this is unfortunately left wing clickbait, feel good fake news. Much like celebrating the defeat of the Austrian far right Presidential candidate by single digits, the joy seems hollow from a local point of view here in Amsterdam. Clearly, the far right do not necessarily have to be in power to have their ideas become dominant in public life. The success of Wilders, and his imitator Rutte, should finally remove the myth of the “tolerant and liberal” Netherlands, and surface level reporting in the global media should not allow it to be resurrected.
Making concessions to the false premises of the far right has led to the unfortunate situation found following the 2017 elections. A left incapable of broadening its concerns and taking leadership on difficult issues has splintered, and a focus on racist preoccupations obscures the other issues which Dutch voters consistently highlight, and which lie at the heart of the problems for which immigrants are scapegoated. These include the soaring cost of private health insurance, and the crippling cost of housing in Amsterdam and other Dutch cities. The most indebted households in the Eurozone, the Dutch also have some of the harshest bankruptcy and debtors’ laws. Such a combination is bound to lead to social tension, which can only worsen under a further right wing VVD government, opposed in parliament by the far-right.