Recent years have seen an interminable debate in the Netherlands around social-cultural identities and very little discussion of the social-economic questions, which have a far greater influence on the lives of the vast majority of the Dutch population. Remarkably enough, the major financial crisis changed this very little.
The Dutch authorities saved a number of major systemic banks – ABN-AMRO, Fortis – by taking them over or – in the case of ING – by extending massive loans to them, and undertook investment in order to break out of economic stagnation. Despite the nature and extent of the systemic crisis, no huge political commotion occurred, although many people felt insecure about future prospects. The decision to postpone harsh austerity measures to 2011/2012 undoubtedly contributed to this relative calm.
In recent years the Netherlands has been governed by a centre-right coalition of CDA (Christian Democrats), Christian Union (a smaller, more conservative Christian party) and the PvdA (Social Democrats). The Balkenende cabinet, under the leadership of the Christian Democratic premier who headed three previous cabinets, stumbled early, was not convincing, and fell apart after three years in office. Throughout this period, the government marked time, failed to inspire the people and took no major decisions. Apart from the lack of a clear and convincing vision of the future, there was from the very start evidence of friction between Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. Controversial topics included the weakening of rights around job dismissal, the raising of the pension age, the enquiry into the role of the Dutch government (also under Balkenende!) in the Iraq war and the question of whether there should be, in one form or another, a follow-up to the military mission in the Afghan province of Uruzgan. In the end, it was the latter issue which provided the occasion for the fall of the government in February of this year.
In the general elections of November 2006 the SP won 25 of the 150 seats in the “Tweede Kamer”, the Dutch parliament. This electoral success represented for the time being the final act of a tumultuous rise which had continued ever since the party entered parliament in 1994 for the first time, with two representatives, a figure which increased to five in 1998 and rose to nine in 2002-2003.
The dramatic growth of the SP was an expression of the need for a party which would resist the neoliberal policy of cutting to the bone; of a lack of competition on the left (a social democratic party which by its own admission had, as we say in Dutch, “shaken its ideological feathers”, or changed its stripes), and a communist party which merged into, or was indeed submerged in, “GroenLinks”, the Green Left); a pragmatic approach (support for anything which carried us forward and the importance of visibility on the street); a fresh, contemporary image; and an extremely popular political leader from a working class background, Jan Marijnissen.
Despite the huge electoral victory which brought us 25 seats in parliament, and the presence of 140 SP branches and 50,000 members, the SP was kept out of the process of government formation by the Christian Democrats and social democrats. These opponents of the SP adroitly turned the facts on their heads: the party, it was said, was running away from the responsibility of participating in the administration of the country. Aside from this will-you-won’t-you question, there was great disappointment amongst a large section of SP voters. Hopes of change – a reduction of income differentials, a well-functioning public sector and a way out of Iraq and Afghanistan, in short a better future for the new generation – had for the time being hit bottom.
In 2008 Jan Marijnissen resigned as leader and was succeeded by Agnes Kant, who was appreciated for her efforts in relation to health care, in favour of both workers and patients. Despite the fact that Agnes and the SP’s parliamentary group worked hard and established the party’s profile through resistance to the sell-off of publicly-owned energy utilities and, together with the trade unions, to the raising of the pensionable age, the SP lost support in the opinion polls. Out on the streets, SP activists also noted the sentiment behind this loss. Although the party on the basis of its principled and pragmatic stance continued to be valued among the people, more people began to doubt that it was an instrument capable of bringing about social change. That in the end the energy utilities were sold off and the pension age raised (with the support of the trade-union leadership!), reinforced this image.
In the local authority elections at the beginning of March this year the SP lost seats. The number of local councillors fell from 345 to 276, and the SP lost its place in the governing groups in important provincial cities such as Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Haarlem. The day after the elections Kant resigned as leader to make way for the little-known MP Emile Roemer, parliamentary spokesman on transport, former member of a local administration, and ex-teacher. Three months before the parliamentary elections of June 9th, the SP’s standing in the polls would have given it eight or nine seats.
In recent years the Netherlands has witnessed the rise of Geert Wilders. Although this right-wing populist consistently refuses to accept invitations from the “left-wing” state-owned broadcaster, and remains aloof from the discussion outside parliament, he has nevertheless dominated public debate for some years. Even in the face of his absence, there is continual discussion about him. In 2004 Wilders left the liberal VVD and in the years that followed developed into a successful political operator, without a membership party, his qualities as an adept debater and provocateur giving him, in the elections of June 2010, 24 of the 150 seats in the Dutch parliament. Although his origins lie in neoliberalism, in the last few years he has taken up a large number of popular and prominent SP policies, such as improvements in care for old people, police officers on the streets instead of sitting behind desks, and opposition to the raising of the pension age.
Despite the fact that he has spent thirteen years in parliament, he knows how to present himself as the politician who knows the needs and requirements of the common people. Moreover, with him everything that is wrong in the Netherlands can be traced back to a single enemy number one – Islam. Young people from Dutch-Moroccan families who create a nuisance (a real problem in many places), female genital mutilation, the harassment of gays, and the international crusade against Islamic terrorism follow naturally, in his perception, one from the other.
The problem of creeping Islamicisation denied by the elite, in his view, forms a deadly threat to Israel and to the whole of the free west. His answer: the annulling of Article 1 of the constitution, which provides for the equality of citizens without regard to race, religion or sexual orientation; a halt to immigration but, better still, the repatriation of all Muslim immigrants; an uncompromising approach to Moroccan “street terrorists”, including kneecapping and deployment of the army; and a tax on headscarves (the so-called “kopvoddentax”). His rabid criticism of Islam has led to death threats against Wilders, and for years he has been included in the Dutch state’s programme for the protection of persons.
Attempts from progressive forces to halt the rise of Wilders or, in his words, to demonise him, have so far proved counterproductive. Labelling him a “danger to democracy”, giving him the designation “racist” or calling his performances “offensive” have only led to an increase in his popularity as a critic of the establishment, the man who dares to express things in a straightforward fashion, “the thorn in the side’ of the elites.
In contrast to other parties, the SP has taken a rather businesslike attitude in relation to Wilders and his one-man party. Instead of launching an ideological struggle and using big words, the party has emphasised that many of the problems to which Wilders draws attention are real problems, or touch upon real problems, but that his solutions are wrong. Finally, however, the party has left no room for misunderstanding in its assertion that there can be no question of structural forms of cooperation with parties which call into question the equality of Dutch citizens.
Partly as a result of the fact that a few months before the official elections commissions came out with proposals for drastic spending cuts designed to get the state deficit back to an acceptable level, the election campaign revolved, from March to May, primarily around the question of what a responsible austerity policy should include and on what lines of government spending savings might be possible.
In parliamentary elections a programme which is well founded in terms of content is one thing, and the man or woman who will put that programme into words for the broad public is another – and perhaps even more important. As a result of the fact that the SP’s new number one spokesperson not only came over well in terms of his grasp of the issues but was also quick-witted and humorous, the SP gained two seats in the polls in each week of the final month, giving the party in the end 15 seats when the real votes were cast. A sore loss in relation to the 25 won in 2006, but a respectable result when compared to the polls of four weeks before the elections, when the SP stood at just eight seats – “a defeat with a silver lining”.
The right was the winner of the election, with the liberal VVD winning 31 seats and Wilders’ PVV 24. The Christian-Democratic CDA, which with only a short interruption has governed the country since the Second World War, sometimes with liberals and sometimes with social democrats, fell to 21 seats, while the two small Christian parties won seven. On the left were the social democrats with 30 seats, the Green Left with ten, the progressive liberal D66 also with ten, and finally the Animals’ Party with two.
All politicians and commentators were agreed on one thing: with this result it would be almost impossible to form a new government. Three scenarios determined how things were seen during the first few weeks: the possibility of a right-wing cabinet of VVD, PVV and CDA; of a centrist cabinet of VVD, PvdA and CDA; or what is known in the Netherlands as a “purple” cabinet of right and left, without the participation of the Christian Democrats, a cabinet made up of VVD, PvdA, D66 and Green Left. Despite the fact that on the eve of the election the leaders of both the PvdA (Job Cohen, former well-respected former mayor of Amsterdam and claiming the Prime Ministership) and the Green Left were still declaring that they would do their best to bring about a cabinet that was as progressive as possible, they chose, to meet with D66, which is following a neoliberal “modernisation agenda”, under the slogan “Modern people don’t like to be patronised”.
Although election victor Mark Rutte, leader of the liberal VVD, had announced that he wanted to form a government within the space of a few weeks, it took more than four months. The first three attempts led to nothing. First of all the “purple” variant (VVD with PvdA, D66 and GroenLinks which would have had a total of 81 seats) failed because Rutte did not find the prospect of having to cooperate with three “progressive parties” attractive. After that the option of a centrist VVD-CDA-PvdA cabinet (which would have had 55% of the parliamentary seats) died because relations between the former coalition parties, the CDA and the PvdA, had gone thoroughly sour. And finally the formation of a right-wing cabinet of VVD and CDA, tolerated by the PVV (51% of the seats), initially ran aground in the face of a rebellion within the CDA though this was temporarily defused by the departure from parliament of the deputy leader of the CDA. After the failure of this last option the CDA parliamentary group agreed to judge the results of the negotiations on their merits and placed no prior block on some form of cooperation with Wilders’ PVV.
At the beginning of October the negotiators of the parties involved reached an agreement on the new government program. The government would be formed by VVD and CDA, while Wilders’ party formally supports the government without being part of it, maintaining its full liberty to operate freely in the political debate. The main programmatic issues: budget cuts of ?18 billion in four years, to be realised by diminishing the government apparatus and lowering financial contributions to the municipalities and the EU (both to be defined in the near future). Most affected will be public servants (salaries will be frozen), people in poor health (higher financial contributions, while the package of medical services will be reduced), young people with physical or mental labour-market limitations, subsidised culture, and public broadcasting and development policies. And the so called positive news (“right-wing people will be really pleased”, as the liberal leader Rutte expressed it): the ban on smoking in small bars will be lifted, the highway speed limit will be increased to 130 kms/hour, three thousand new police officers and five hundred animal cops, burkas will be prohibited (they are currently worn by 170 women in the Netherlands), and immigration will be hindered.
PVV – a party without members – and the VVD agreed immediately that this was a good programme, while the Christian Democrats needed a special congress, which was broadcast live and seen by 700,000 persons. Although one third of the congress – among them almost all elderly ex-prime ministers and ex-ministers – opposed the strategic alliance with Wilders’ PVV, eventually two-third of the congress approved the negotiation results (many of them reluctantly, fearing that their party would fall apart).
As things now appear, a government of VVD and CDA, tolerated by the PVV, will soon take power. This raises the question as to just who is using whom. Supporters of cooperation within the VVD and the CDA believe that the agreement will have a moderating effect on Wilders and that his party will gradually settle into the Dutch “poldermodel”, with its policies of give and take. Opponents, on the other hand, who are few in the liberal VVD but a significant minority in the CDA, consider official cooperation with a party which questions the Dutch constitution and the equality of citizens as morally unacceptable and politically dangerous because it legitimises a current which should be opposed.
And the SP in these developments? Since June and even before that, SP leader Emile Roemer has resisted the pressure and argued strongly for a centre-left cabinet of CDA, PvdA, Green Left and SP, which would have 51% of the seats. Despite the fact that other political leaders did not want to see this, what was dubbed the “Roemer variant” came to be seen among politicians and the media as a serious option for discussion. The SP leader pointed, in support of his proposal, to the broad social support for finding a way out of the crisis and the attractiveness of his option to the social wing of the CDA, those who, on grounds of principle, were horrified by the idea of cooperation with the PVV.
As yet, the PvdA’s Job Cohen and Green Left leader Femke Halsema are sceptical about the formation of a left alternative, although a major part of their support is positive about it. For us, opposition to a government that seems determined to make ordinary people pay for the crisis and that will give space to a PVV which wants to do away with the equal status of Dutch citizens, forms a basis for developing a left alternative. That alternative can only come into being if the future of our country is not left to career politicians, but handed to young people committed to solidarity, to trade unionists, environmentalists and human-rights activists, and to the majority of ordinary people who are not highly educated and who do not earn more than the average. The main challenge for the near future will be to win ordinary people – among them a majority of the people who vote for Wilders in order to express their discontent and fear for the future – to a better perspective. This political work needs to be done not only in Parliament but outside in the poor neighbourhoods, the suburbs, in factories and offices.
A progressive alternative and the necessary political coalition required must be created in the coming years, and that will not be easy. In the second half of September the first small step was taken by SP leader Roemer. The PvdA, the Green Left, D66 and the SP brought forward a common alternative to deep cuts in spending on child-care, education, personal security and naturalisation programmes. Instead of these, what are proposed are cuts in defence spending, the maintenance of tax on profits at its current level, and cuts in subsidies to big firms. The coming months will show which opposition party will be most convincing in offering alternatives to the right wing government and its policies of widening the gap between rich and poor. Recent opinion polls show that the PvdA’s lead on the SP amounts to no more than 2.5%.