Netherlands: Right's electoral gains a challenge for the left

Supporters of anti-racist, anti-capitalist party BIJ1 rally on March 22. Photo: @politiekbij1/Twitter

The Dutch election in mid-March was a shift to the right. The result is not very surprising, but it is disturbing. The right has become even more right-wing and a large part of the left vote has been swallowed up by supposedly progressive liberals.

That the pro-business, secular government party, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), could once again become the largest party, is not just due to the individual merit of its leader, Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Their result of 35 out of 150 seats (a gain of two) mainly shows how effectively Rutte represents their combination of neoliberal economics and Dutch chest-beating.

In a world that is adrift, the VVD and Rutte present “The Netherlands Ltd” as a safe investment. At least, as long as it is run by people who know the tricks of the trade. Thus, the VVD profits from increasing nationalism and fear of change in an uncertain time.

According to the polls, the centrist liberal party, Democrats 66 (D66), drew votes away mainly from the left, gaining four more seats to reach 23.

First, it drew votes away from green party GroenLinks (GreenLeft). In a disastrous result for the left, GroenLinks halved its seats from 14 to 8. But the social-democratic Labour Party (PvdA) and the leftwing Socialist Party (SP) also lost considerably to D66.

Response to right-wing threat

D66 is seen as a dam against the rising “populist” tide. D66 party leader Sigrid Kaag can be grateful to far-right leaders, Thierry Baudet (Forum for Democracy, FvD) and Geert Wilders (Party for Freedom, PVV): the threat of their far-right agenda could make D66 a governing party and accomplice to the VVD — seen as an alternative in the eyes of many progressives.

D66 and the millionaire-funded newcomer, pro-European Union liberal party, Volt, won many of the votes that went to GroenLinks in the previous election.

GroenLinks had extraordinary success in 2017, with a campaign that radiated enthusiasm and idealism. Party leader Jesse Klaver, however, quickly showed he did not want to be an opposition leader, and his main aim was to participate in government in cooperation with the right.

On issues such as climate and migration, GroenLinks and D66 were virtually indistinguishable, leaving many GroenLinks voters with little reason not to vote for the governing party straight away.

Voters who could not resign themselves to this went to Volt for a large part. Presented in a very favourable fashion by important media outlets, the Dutch branch of Volt Europa entered parliament with three seats.

The PvdA was only able to hold on to its nine seats. Since the 1990s, the PvdA’s usual yo-yo movement of left-wing rhetoric in opposition, followed by governing in coalition with the right, disappointment, and electoral punishment, became increasingly extreme.

With clever marketing and the argument of “strategic voting”, the PvdA was able to recover several times, but in 2017 the string snapped. The PvdA lost 29 seats — the heaviest election defeat in Dutch political history. This year, the strategic vote went to D66. Only the voter base of the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) is older than the PvdA’s.

Socialist Party decline

The defeat of the SP was expected. Still, losing 5 out of 14 seats was a harder blow than many of its activists had counted on. Although comparable in terms of seats, a difference between GroenLinks and SP is that for the latter, its electoral defeat is part of a longer pattern and stagnation and decline. Whereas membership of GroenLinks has increased, that of the SP has been on the decline for roughly a decade.

The SP’s “socially conservative and economically progressive” approach does not appear to be an electoral success formula. The SP lost voters to D66 and GroenLinks and part of its most radical left wing went to the anti-capitalist BIJ1 (Together).

At the other end of the spectrum, no less than 8% of votes for the far-right FvD came from former SP supporters.

Ignoring “cultural” issues like anti-racism and the legacy of the Netherlands’ colonial past (and imperialist present) in combination with insisting on a willingness to compromise (even with the VVD) is often defended as a means of keeping “angry working people” away from the far right. It does not appear to work.

What it does is drive young leftists away. Recently, the SP broke with its youth wing ROOD (RED), mainly because of the latter’s opposition to the SP’s rhetoric about its willingness to join coalitions with the right, including the VVD. While ROOD is still demanding to be allowed back into the SP, and campaigned for the party in the election, the SP’s voter base is now one of the oldest in the country.

The real shift has taken place on the right. The extreme right has never been so big. Its flagship is still Wilders’ PVV.

The PVV’s priority is an ever-radicalising Islamophobia. This year, the party campaigned on a platform that includes banning the Koran, closing all mosques, a complete stop to immigration from “Islamic countries”, denying voting rights to hundreds of thousands of Dutch citizens with double nationality (often Turkish or Moroccan), and establishing a branch of government dedicated to “de-Islamising” Dutch society.

The PVV lost slightly, going from 20 to 17 seats, making it the third-largest party in parliament. The rise of the far right was especially visible in the north. The far right was already strong in the south, but the north and east were still PvdA strongholds. Now these provinces, too, follow the national pattern.

Far-right newcomer JA21 (a split from Baudet’s FvD) won three seats. Ja21 in particular profited from benevolent attention in the media — using the same trick that initially made FvD successful — by presenting itself as the “decent” far-right alternative: without conspiracy theorists and without the “social” demagogy of the PVV.

The steady growth of the extreme right remains an international phenomenon. Partly because there is so little fundamental opposition from the left, not even in response to the failed COVID-19 policy of the past year.

The FvD quadrupled its seats, growing to eight. The FvD is at least as far to the right as the PVV. Compared with Wilders, the FvD presents a more coherent far-right ideology, based around white supremacy and social-Darwinism.

Unlike the PVV — which has no membership organisation and is highly dependent on Wilders and his Twitter account — the FvD is building a party apparatus that quickly gathered tens of thousands of members. The party seemed near collapse only a few months ago, when internal messages were leaked that showed cadre-members making explicit anti-Semitic and racist statements. Its recovery and now growth has been remarkable.

FvD leader Baudet has taken a good look at Wilders’ earlier success; it can be electorally rewarding to doggedly defend so-called “unpopular” positions, such as trivialising the epidemic. A large majority of the Dutch population supports measures such as COVID-19 lockdowns and even the curfew. The FvD, however, successfully rallied a minority that is radically opposed to such measures, often motivated by combinations of far-right conspiracy theories.

The Netherlands has not had so much outright racism and anti-Semitism in its parliament since WWII.

According to professional political commentators, the radicalism of PVV and FvD means the two parties have “sidelined themselves”, because they will not easily qualify as partners for a new government coalition. For people who do not suffer from a professional narrowing of vision, it is clear that the far right — from the opposition — will continue to put pressure on the VVD, narrow the margins for what is seen as a viable alternative, and thus attempt to influence society as a whole — not just for a cabinet term, but for the long term.

Anti-capitalist alternative

The weakness of the left (its worst result in a century) clearly goes deeper than an unfortunate campaign or misjudgements by individual leaders. The left, as a frame of reference for a political identity, has lost much of its power.

Again, the experts talk of a declining appeal of ideologies as part of the explanation, but this is not very convincing. An ideology such as nationalism reigns supreme. What is the intense attachment, and false hope for, “Europe” (meaning the EU) of D66 and now Volt, if not ideological?

The grand narratives have clearly returned. One of the great mistakes of the Dutch left in the period leading up to this election was that, while it was already at an all-time low in the polls, it did not prioritise its own narrative, but rather stressed its eagerness to get into government.

In the Dutch media, there was much to read about how, under pressure from the epidemic and the coming economic crisis, the mood had become more “left-wing” in socio-economic terms. The idea that this time the right-wing parties, too, were taking “left-wing” positions shows, above all, how little this word means in the Netherlands.

A more active role for the state is not necessarily left-wing, and there is little left-wing about doing something about poverty after years of growing inequality, while, for example, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and the like are still being prioritised. Hardly any party says anything positive about neoliberalism, but the basic elements of neoliberal policy are still taken for granted.

But apart from BIJ1, there is no parliamentary party in the Netherlands that takes an anti-capitalist position. Even from the SP we hear only vague calls for a “more social policy” and a “fair government”. The left should not let centrist liberals like D66 and Volt get away with declaring themselves the social, internationalist, even anti-racist alternative.

The ray of hope is the entry into parliament of BIJ1 with one seat. This party, founded in 2016, combines a commitment to anti-racism with an anti-capitalist platform. Its leader, Sylvana Simmons, is one the very few Black women in Dutch national politics and will now represent a self-avowed radicalism on the national stage.

BIJ1’s audience is modest but real, mainly based in the larger cities. In the capital Amsterdam, the only city where it was already present on the city council, its vote doubled. Here BIJ1 was the left-wing opposition to an executive that is a coalition of the three major left-wing parties and D66.

The big challenge now is to consolidate the party as a nationally-visible opposition force. Such a BIJ1, with an active role in different social movements, will benefit the whole left. For this we need to work together with people who remain in GroenLinks and SP. Unity, especially with the social movements that will have to take a central place in the left-wing resistance in the coming period, will be desperately needed.

[Abridged from International Viewpoint.]

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