Results of the Dutch election reveal a fragmented political landscape—and a victory for the right.
The hard neoliberal party, VVD, won the election just ahead of the Labour Party. The extreme right wing anti-Islam party of Geert Wilders, the Party of Freedom, won 24 seats with 15 percent of the vote.
The ruling Christian Democrats saw their vote halved and their longstanding prime minister, Balkenende, was ousted.
The elections followed the fall of the Labour-Christian Democrat government. Formally this was over the question of Afghanistan. But dwindling support for the Labour Party over its crisis measures and support for the banks was the real reason they pulled out of the coalition in an attempt to salvage their base.
Polls had been predicting a strong increase for Wilders for more than a year, but the result still came as a shock to a lot of people.
It follows a decade-long pattern of powerful polarisation, fuelled by bitterness and a strong increase in Islamophobia. How did this come to be in a country that was once seen as the bedrock of tolerance and stability?
The unpopularity and weakening of the mainstream parties is important. The VVD, Christian Democrats and Labour Party used to dominate the landscape, averaging together between 110 and 140 of the 150 seats in parliament since the fifties.
Now their combined vote is good for just 82 seats. Their responsibility for thirty years of neoliberal onslaught has created deep distrust of the mainstream parties among ordinary people.
The extreme right has channeled this bitterness very successfully. Pim Fortuyn did this before his assassination in 2002. Wilders is his more radical heir.
They combine a virulent mix of anti-Islam rhetoric, denouncements of the establishment as the “left elite” and neoliberal politics—with the latter downplayed as much as possible. The aggressiveness with which Wilders has battled the mainstream parties, walking out of parliament in protest against the “political travesty” of the crisis measures, struck a chord with many disenchanted voters.
Next and most important is the stance of the left and the unions. In 2003 and 2004 they were able to mobilise hundreds of thousands of people against the government on the issue of the war and pensions. In the following elections the left made huge gains, with a stunning 16.6 percent of the vote for the anti-neoliberal Socialist Party (SP).
This gave them 25 seats in parliament and made them the de facto leader of the opposition. Instead of using this position to organise resistance, they squandered their support by softening their tone and content in the hope of being deemed worthy of government.
Adding insult to injury the union leadership sold out on the pension age without even putting up a fight. Wilders denounced this most strongly as “a betrayal of regular folks” while the left stayed silent.
This silence gave Wilders the opportunity to divert anger over worsening social conditions towards scapegoating Muslims and migrants.
The run-up to the recent elections was described as a rejuvenation of traditional left-right polarisation but in fact things were more muddled. All parties were in favour of large cuts. The VVD presented itself as the most consistent cutters—their election slogan was, “The economy could use some VVD”.
Against this the only strong card of the Labour Party was a switch in leadership. Job Cohen, former mayor of Amsterdam who is seen as a unifying pro-multicultural antidote to Wilders, replaced Wouter Bos, the tainted rescuer of the banks.
The election slogan of the Labour Party was “Everyone counts”, clearly aimed against the politics of hate and division.
This was hypocritical given its track record on accommodating to Islamophobia, but for a lot of people it felt like fresh air and was key to its electoral damage control (Labour only lost three seats).
The Dutch version of the Liberal Democrats also won seats and criticism of Wilders’ racism was their best selling point.
The SP tagged to the left on the issue of the cuts. But it refrained from attacking Wilders—and when it did it was on the dubious claim that the SP had identified “the immigration problem” decades earlier.
In this situation, voters rewarded the party with the clearest message and which made the strongest polarisation. Disillusioned left wing voters stayed at home, the SP lost ten seats and the right wing vote shifted from the Christian Democrats to the VVD (31 seats) and Wilders’ Party of Freedom (24 seats).
The formation of the next coalition is going to be difficult and is unlikely to produce a stable government. Two things are certain. The first is that the coming government is going to be right wing and wield an axe on the welfare state.
The second is that, if the left wants make a comeback, it needs to throw itself into building aggressive resistance—in parliament and on the streets.
Maina van der Zwan is a member of the Dutch Internationale Socialisten. » socialisme.nu/blog (in Dutch)