A note on the Dutch elections

Kevin Ovenden is the author of Syriza Inside the Labyrinth and a longstanding socialist activist and writer in Britain. He has closely followed Greek politics, society and culture for over twenty-five years. He was for many years a member of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain and then a leading figure in the Respect Party. He writes particularly on racism, the politics of the Middle East and the crisis of the Eurozone for a range of outlets. He is a national officer of both the Stop the War Coalition and of Unite Against Fascism. He lives in east London, but spends time in Greece and in the Middle East. Kevin was aboard the Mavi Marmara when Israeli commandos boarded it five years ago killing 10 Turkish aid workers. He led five blockade-busting aid convoys to Gaza and is on the executive committee of the International Campaign to Return to Palestine. Contact Kevin: e-mail me at: kevin.ovenden[at]gmail.com. On facebook here. On Twitter: @kevin_ovenden

Kevin Ovenden

We do face a threat from the far right. But at least some of the European radical left has been aware of that for some time, and independently from the sudden – and capricious – attention paid to the problem by liberal centrists.

It is worth looking at the electoral cycles in the Netherlands back to 2002. It is not so very long ago.

It was at that election 15 years ago that the anti-Muslim right wing list of Pim Fortuyn (who had been assassinated) took 17 percent of the vote.

Part of that came via a severe collapse of the Labour Party, whose vote halved to 15 percent. It is important to recall that at the time most of the international response to Fortuyn normalised him as some “Dutch liberal” reaction to the threat of “militant Islam”.

That was thanks to the ideology of and political justification for the “war on terror”.

In 2006, the successor to Fortuyn, Geert Wilders took 5.9 percent.

In 2010 he won 15.4 percent.

In 2012, 10.1 percent.

And this year, 2017: 13.1 percent.

Turnouts have fluctuated a little, and this year’s was high.

So the far right has been able to consolidate a presence. It is now second placed. But that is with a lower share of the vote than it got in 2010. (Though we should note that the more fascistic Forum for Democracy entered parliament this year with two MPs and 1.8 percent of the vote.)

The reason why it can be second placed with the support of less than one in seven Dutch voters is the growing fragmentation of the Dutch party political system.

That has accumulated over time. Each of the three historic main poles of the Dutch political system – the right wing conservative CDA, the social democratic PvdA, and the liberal-conservative VVD – has seen their support rise and fall in the years of EU expansion followed by the long crisis beginning in 2007-8.

But the overall trajectory is downwards.

So the CDA, for example, gained votes this year and took 12.5 percent, giving it 19 MPs.

But at the beginning of this political sequence in 2002 it was the largest party with 27.9 percent.

dutchThe PvdA Labour Party was able to hold together its vote and even grow slightly in the crisis years. But then it entered coalition with the VVD and has slumped from 24.8 percent to 5.7 percent. It is now the seventh party in the industrial port city of Rotterdam.

The VVD grew to 26.6 percent in 2012 and fell to 21.3 percent this week, in an election which saw advances for the social-liberal D66 and the GreenLeft.

A lot more has to be considered in seriously analysing where things are going: from the ideological spectrum of where Dutch voters place themselves to the hard evidence of where voters switched from and to. And there is room for varying interpretations of the evidence.

But some things do stand out, I believe, for the left.

1) The impression given by the liberal centre is that there is, in what they call “the era of Trump and Brexit”, a popular shift to the hard right. The implication, and they are often explicit about it, is that the the answer is a re-formed centre which both defends the economic regime and also adapts to “the identity issues” which the far right play on.

2) But the Dutch story is not one of the secular growth of the far right at the polls. It is rather one of the fragmentation of the historic governmental parties.

3) The political and ideological resources which the far right thrives on were not introduced by them. They do not sail under their own steam. They have depended upon the turn to scapegoating, above all Islamophobia, which has come from the centre.

4) The indisputable standout of the Dutch election on Wednesday was the collapse of the social democratic Labour Party.

5) That is a crisis for the governing centre of the Dutch system. The prime minister of a rival party is grieving over the fall of his coalition partner. It is not because he cannot form another coalition. He can. It is because, as elsewhere in northern Europe, Dutch social democracy has played a role in capitalist stability over the years, outsized compared with its overall national share of social support.

6) The fall of the Dutch Labour Party is also an issue for the left – precisely because it is considered on the left of the political spectrum. The fact that its voters have gone in a number of directions – some to the left (to the GreenLeft), but others to one of the centrist formations – can lead to thinking that there is a “shift to the right”.

7) It remains to be seen whether Dutch voters as a whole or on average have adopted more right wing positions. Determining that depends on detailed evidence and careful analysis. And an average can mask a polarisation, with some moving left and others right.

8) The elephant in the room is the radical left. Why has it not been able to advance? The Dutch Socialist Party remains on 9+ percent. But in 2006, following the campaign against the EU constitution, it was on 16.6 percent.

When we start to look at that question we are led in a different direction from trying to discern apparently objective ebbs and flows, or swings, among the aggregated body of people known as the Dutch electorate.

We have to look at the politics of the radical left and at our experiences over this same 15 year cycle, beginning with Genoa and 15 February 2003 and leading to the struggles we are involved in today.

We have to look at the strategies pursued – from Rifondazione in Italy to the (better) path of Syriza in Greece. And we need to revisit the critical debates about them.

The serious forces of the far right do this. They consolidate and build. That is the primary reason why they are in the position they hold now but with not that much more support than they mustered previously.

The historic governmental party with a base inside the organised working class in the Netherlands has just collapsed at the polls.

A radical left does exist in the country. The critical investigation as to why it did not advance does not lie with imputing objective trends.

It lies with examining the political weaknesses of the left.

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