The elections of 23 November resulted in a historic breakthrough for the Socialist Party (SP). For the first time, parties to the left of Labour received a combined vote higher than Labour itself. The SP is now the third biggest party in parliament. All the ruling parties have lost seats and none of their planned coalitions will be able to form a majority government.
The background to the election is a series of events that have shaken the Dutch political landscape in the past years: the murder of the right wing populist Pim Fortuyn in 2002, the installation of a right wing government which pushed through the largest cuts package since 1945, the sudden rise in class struggle resulting in a 300,000-strong trade union march in 2004, the 62 percent No Vote against the EU referendum and the landslide victory for left wing parties in the local elections last May.
The elections have sharpened the crisis of the ruling parties. The results show a weakening of the political centre and an increased social polarisation. The SP, which has evolved from Maoism in the 1970s to its current left-reformist position, went from 6.3 percent of the vote in 2003 to a stunning 16.6 percent. This is the result of its opposition to neo-liberalism and the government's support for Bush's wars. At the other end of the spectrum, the new Party for Freedom received 5.9 percent of the votes on a harsh anti-Islam campaign. Its leader, Geert Wilders talked about the ‘tsunami of Islamisation’ and proposed to ban the wearing of the burqa in all public places.
Islamophobia has also become a major tool for the bigger establishment parties. The governing Christian Democrats(CDA) and Tories have used Islamophobia to distract attention from their unpopular neo-liberal policies. The Labour Party has mainly gone along with this. Unfortunately, the Socialist Party has failed to defend the Muslim community. It has even supported the demands for 'integration' and proposed coercive measures to 'disperse minorities' and combat their 'segregation'. All the talk about 'self-segregation' ignores the fact that 80 percent of all managers openly admit they would rather to hire a 'Dutch' worker than a 'foreigner'. Three times more 'foreigners' suffer from poverty and poor housing than the 'Dutch'.
It’s not surprising that many Muslims have turned their backs on parties which are responsible for social cuts and have supported the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. On a modest level anti-war and anti-racist campaigns have been able to reach out to some Muslims, but the left as a whole, most importantly the SP, urgently needs to involve Muslims in a united struggle against racism, war and neoliberalism.
Behind the political instability has been a continuous onslaught on the welfare state and a widening gap between rich and poor. Recent social surveys showed that 90 percent of people in the Netherlands see our society as individualistic and guided by material success. Asked what kind of society they want, a similar percentage indicated the exact opposite: a society based on solidarity and quality of life. The survey also showed a large distrust for the political establishment in general.
The CDA, who’ve been in power for the past five years, remain the largest party. This may seem strange considering that the CDA prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende has been immensely unpopular. The 'victory'—or rather, the limited loss—of the CDA, is largely due to the Labour party. Labour has supported the rightwing government on more than one critical occasion. They supported the war in Iraq and the sending of troops to Afghanistan. They backed the government’s call for a Yes vote in the EU referendum and have supported practically all cuts and privatisations. This is why Labour lost over 6 percent of the votes it got in the last elections.
Usually the call for a tactical vote for Labour to keep the right out of office has kept people from voting to the left of Labour. The results of this election were a fundamental break in this pattern. Labour noticed this two weeks before the votes were cast and started to attack the ruling parties for the 'market-driven policies' and the poverty in the Netherlands. For them, it was all a little too late.
The SP now faces a huge challenge. It has a large mandate on the ticket of protecting the welfare state, opposing privatisation, and a break with Bush’s 'war on terror'. At the same time its leadership have aspirations of going into office and have watered down their leftwing radicalism. With no possibility for a new neoliberal government to establish any clear democratic legitimacy, Dutch politics will remain very unstable. This puts a huge responsibility on the radical left to build the movements against war and privatisation and continue the pressure on the political parties to make a clear break with neoliberalism.
Maina van der Zwan is a member of the International Socialists in the Netherlands.