Netherlands: A hangover instead of an earthquake

September 15, 2012

Exit polls have shown the Dutch Socialist Party will get 15 seats after the September 12 elections, the same number it had before.

When two weeks ago, with polls showing the SP stood to win about 35 seats, even The Economist felt the need to raise the alarm over SP-leader Emile Roemer's “far-left party”. With this fresh in the memory, that's a deep disappointment for Dutch leftists. But it shouldn't come as much of a surprise.

The SP is not a party comparable to the Greek SYRIZA or the French Front de Gauche (Left Front). Its election program was a progressive social-democratic program that proposed measures like greater spending on social housing, the environment and public transport and an increase in the minimum wage.

In terms of changing property relations, there were some proposals to (partially) reverse a number of the privatisations that took place in the last two decades, such as the railways or the post. There were no proposals to nationalise parts of the financial sector.

Regarding the austerity measures promoted by the European Union, the party rejected a centrepiece of this, the “European Stability Pact” that demands the budget deficit of EU countries be below 3% in 2013. But the party did commit itself to the same goal, only two years later in 2015. A raise of the pension age from 65 to 67 after 2025 was accepted as inevitable.

The SP's program is to the right of what the Dutch Labour Party was saying in the 1970s and is really not that different from what one might hear in circles of the French Socialist Party of Francois Hollande.

That this party was still labeled “far left” and clearly is the most left-wing national political force in the country indicates the general political mood and balance of forces in the Netherlands. It shows how far to the right the other parties, including the Labour Party and the Greens, have moved: with the possible exception of the small Animal Rights Party, the SP is the only party in the Dutch parliament that rejects neoliberalism.

Of course, despite the mildness of the SP's program, the right was still foaming at the mouth when polls showed the SP could possibly become the biggest party in the country.

But the 35-37 out of a total 150 parliamentary seats, as these polls predicted, showed a party whose temporary electoral popularity was not reflected by a corresponding left-wing shift in society.

For the past decade, the total number of seats for the left in parliament (Labour Party, Green plus SP) hovered around 40-42%, with the exception of the elections in 2002. Then, there was a real political earthquake with the breakthrough of the populist far-right, now represented by Geert Wilders, and the left won only 42 seats.

Although the country has seen a few high-profile strikes over the last years, especially of teachers and cleaners, the number of strike days last year was the lowest since 2003. The trend for this year seems to be little different. Other social movements have been weak as well.

Despite the continuing appeal of the far-right (Wilders lost heavily but still managed to win about 13 seats), the country has seen very little anti-racist protests. Despite continuing Dutch involved in Afghanistan, the anti-war movement is practically non-existent and it was small even when Dutch troops were still in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

In short, few people went through a process of politicisation and struggle that matched the kind of leftward shift these polls seemed to predict.

A large part of the people who said they would vote SP came from the Labour Party: there does exist a longer trend of Labour Party voters, sick of the betrayals of this “Third Way” social-liberal party, to move further to the left, to the SP.

Many former Labour Party voters said they would vote SP when it seemed like it was going to be the biggest party and, in this way, could prevent the current right-wing prime minister of the extremely neoliberal VVD, Mark Rutte, from returning for a second term.

“Emile Roemer, the SP candidate, or Mark Rutte”, that was also a central message of the SP's campaign. But since people were not asked to vote for the SP's program and their solutions for the crisis, but for a future prime minister, the “experienced” Labour Party became more and more a logical choice for many of them.

The moment the Labour Party won only a nose-length over the SP in polls, voters started to quickly leave Roemer for the leader of the Labour Party, Diederik Samson.

The right-wing campaign in the media against the SP undoubtedly played a role in this ― but such a campaign was entirely predictable.

That right-wing ghost stories about how the “Maoist” Roemer was going to “turn the Netherlands into Greece” and how in general the SP's policies were demented ultra-leftism seemed so credible to many people, including people who consider themselves on the left, only shows how deeply rooted the neoliberal ideology still is in this country.

The VVD not only managed to rally its supporters, this campaign also scared away many potential SP-voters, back into the arms of the supposedly 'more responsible' Labour Party'.

The question now is what conclusions will be drawn from this? Before the elections, the SP moved to the right on such issues as the pension age, to become “acceptable” for the right as a coalition partner – coalitions are the only way governments can be formed here.

The big winner is first of all the VVD: this party took part in the most right-wing government the country has seen since the war and is the most vocal supporter of deep cuts and strict austerity. It won around extra 10 seats, most probably becoming the largest party.

The second big winner is the Labour Party, winning an extra eight seats and becoming only marginally smaller than the VVD. The most likely scenario is a coalition of Labour and the VVD, plus at least one more party to gain a majority in the Senate.

Such a scenario looks very much like the Dutch governments in the 1990s, when neoliberal policies were fully introduced. In one decade, the postal and energy companies were privatised, the labour market liberalised, privatisation of health care started and subsidies for students cut ― among other measures.

[Alex de Jong is editor of Grenzeloos, the journal of the Dutch section of the Fourth International. This article first appeared at Green Left Weekly's sister publication Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

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