The Dutch national elections, held on 12 September, resulted in a victory for the Liberal Party (comparable to the Conservatives in Britain) and the Labour Party (comparable to Britain’s New Labour). The Liberals got 41 seats (26.4%) and the Labour Party 39 (24.7%). The Dutch Socialist Party (SP) remains at 15 seats, although it polled support for 39 seats at one stage during the election campaign. Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (extreme right wing and racist) lost 9 seats (a fall from 24 seats to 15).
The elections took place against a background of propaganda about the state debt running out of control, the need to pay ‘our’ debts now and not to pass it on to next generations etc. The truth is that state debt ran at 200% after WWII, at 80% in the 1980s and is at 65% now, well below the EU average. Also, the Netherlands is the second largest tax haven in the world; billions of corporation money flows through the country, taxed minimally or untaxed.
The elections were called after the last coalition fell in March. It was a coalition government between the Liberal Party and the Christian Democrats, supported by Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party. The Freedom Party supported the cabinet in parliament but did not have any party member as government ministers. This coalition fell apart over a new cuts programme. It agreed to 18 billion euro worth of cuts but later claimed a further 12.5 billion cuts were necessary to ‘stabilise state finances’. An additional austerity programme of 25 billion euro is now considered “necessary”.
Why did the Liberal Party emerge as the largest party on Wednesday despite its failure in government? The answer is simple. The other right wing parties, the Christian Democrats and the Freedom Party, lost more seats (8 and 9 respectively) than the Liberal Party gained (10). In this sense, the previous right wing coalition government lost the election. The attempt to form a government that was “finger licking good” for the Right, as the former Prime Minister Rutte (Liberal Party leader) described it in 2010, was a failure.
Why has the Labour Party gained?
Why has the Labour Party made new gains, winning nearly 40 seats? It increased its vote by 9 seats largely because of the collapse of the Green Left (who lost 7 seats, leaving the party with just 3). When extra cuts were deemed necessary, last May, after the fall of the government, the Green Left and several other parties helped the caretaker government of Liberals and Christian Democrats to carry out a new round of cuts. Earlier on, the Green Left played a key role in supporting a police-training mission in Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan. There were also internal difficulties inside the Green Left organisation that was eagerly reported on by the media.
The failure of the Dutch Socialist Party to make its promised breakthrough is the most startling result of these elections. It won 9.7% of the vote, down 0.2% from the last election. There was a great deal to fight for. Up to 40% of voters were estimated to be undecided until election day. But the SP ended up with 15 seats; exactly the number it held in the last parliament. After polling close to 40 seats during the election campaign, and with reports in the international press that SP leader, Emil Roemer, was possibly the next Dutch prime minister and that the SP could become the largest party in the Netherlands, Wednesday’s result was a major disappointment for SP voters and members.
It appears that many voters who supported the SP in the polls in August ended up voting for the Labour Party. The two most important reasons for this change of heart by potential SP voters seem to have been over the party’s position on pensions and the EU. The SP initially took the position that the pension age (65) should remain unchanged but in order to balance the budget went along with agreeing to increase the age to 67 in 2025. This reneging of the SP’s former position on pensions was carried out by leadership to prove the party’s ‘financial solidity’ to possible coalition partners and the media.
In the earlier stages of the election campaign, SP leader Roemer also declared that he would not pay any fines to the EU for overshooting the 3% (of GDP) budget deficit. He made this comment to the main Dutch financial newspaper. Roemer’s remarks were seized upon by the capitalist establishment and the media and condemned as “irresponsible”. He then vaguely retracted the statement. Defying the EU and the austerity tsars in Brussels could have made him hugely more popular with voters. Bowing to the political pressure of pro-cuts parties and the mass media, an impression Roemer reinforced on several later occasions, led to many workers and youth losing faith in the SP.
During the election campaign, Roemer and the SP’s leadership continued to stress their willingness to compromise and form a coalition government, which would include pro-cuts parties. They openly declared that they wanted to take over the role of social democracy. Many voters decided to vote for the real thing – Labour.
The election campaign was almost entirely focused on TV appearances and personalities and Labour Party leader, Diederik Samson, cut a sharper figure in this context than SP leader, Roemer. Samson was widely seen as the main challenger to former Liberal leader, Rutte, during TV debates and Roemer faded into the background.
The SP won 25 seats in the 2006 elections. It went down to 15 in the 2010 elections. Therefore getting the same result on 12 September is a huge disappointment for many SP voters, members and supporters.
Socialist Alternative (CWI Netherlands) called for a vote for the SP and said that a major victory of the SP, as initially indicated by the polls, would have been the best possible outcome of the elections. Socialist Alternative campaigned for such a victory, while calling for the party to fight on bold socialist policies and the for the SP membership to oppose the leaderships further swing to the right. A strong SP result would have inspired the working class to fight the cuts, oppose the EU elite, with its endless demands for austerity, and to seek solidarity with other European workers in struggle.
The Dutch trade unions are involved in a complicated re-organisation at the moment and their leaders are seen as more supportive of the Labour Party. This may initially dampen the prospect of trade union struggles when the Labour Part gets into government, as is likely. The SP needs to support the struggle against cuts everywhere, to start to make a comeback. We call on the SP to have an open debate on the lessons of the election campaign and on the outcome of the election. The SP’s result - staying static at 15 seats – is not a serious setback for many SP members and supporters but it is not an irreversible defeat. Nevertheless given the failure of the previous right wing coalition government of the Liberal Party and the Christian Democrats, and the role that the Labour Party played in previous governments, including helping to introduce the euro, bailout the big banks at workers’ expense, and setting major privatisations in motion, this weeks’ outcome for the SP was a case of ‘defeat snatched from the jaws of victory’.
The final weeks of the election campaign was presented by the politicians and media as a race between the Liberal and the Labour Party. Now they will most likely form a coalition government together. Neither can form a government with politically-‘allied’ parties. The Liberal Party is the largest party in the parliament but at the expense of the other main right wing parties, the Christian Democrats and the Freedom Party. The Labour Party has grown but at the expense of the Green Lefts.
Together the Labour Party and Liberals hold 80 seats in parliament, which has 150 seats in total. They lack a majority in the upper house, so they will probably need to include the badly-bruised Christian Democrats in their coalition. This will mean a government of the traditional ruling parties – parties that are responsible for the political and economic disasters of the past 20 years.
Workers’ resistance to cuts
Dutch workers are in a difficult position. The new government, whatever its exact composition, will impose huge cuts on health and education, will force people to work much longer and will cut pensions by 10%-15%. Young people will be hit by low incomes, unemployment and high rents. Trade union resistance is largely blocked by the union leadership, at the moment. Political resistance is frustrated by the impotence of the SP leadership.
Resistance needs to be built from the bottom up. In the unions, a broad-based, fighting, left opposition, like the National Shop Stewards Network in Britain, is necessary to develop the struggle.
However the new coalition government will be full of tensions from the start. “We won our greatest victory in history," Rutte, the leader of the Liberals, declared. He is associated with German Chancellor Angel Merkel’s plans of strictly adhering to austerity measures that are designed to force down the country’s deficit. While Labour also agrees to cuts, there can be sharp disputes between the coalition parties over timing and the depth of austerity. Labour leader, Samsom, who is regarded as wanting to follow French President, Francois Hollande’s policy of increasing some spending and taxes on the rich, calls for spending on job-creation programmes in the Netherlands. Samsom claims he will bargain hard in coalition talks. "The course must be changed because the right-wing policies of the past two years cannot continue," he said. Developing working class opposition to austerity can put huge pressure on these coalition fault-lines and make the government much more vulnerable than it appears now.
The main lesson for the Dutch Socialist Party rank and file and wider supporters is that bold socialist policies are needed to decisively win over the support of working class and middle class people who will be hit hard by new austerity measures. Socialist Alternative (CWI Netherlands) calls for a genuinely democratic debate within and around the SP on the lessons of the 12 September elections. By adopting genuinely open and democratic structures and a socialist alternative to capitalism in crisis, the SP can attract new layers of workers and youth, and be part of the fight-back against a new coalition government’s cuts.
The election campaign and final results emphase, once again, the electoral volatility of big parts of the Dutch electorate. Polarisation can take place to the Left and Right. Big swings by sections of the population in either direction is a hallmark of Dutch politics over the last decade or so.
The Left will have big possibilities to make gains and to establish the basis of a new mass party representing working class people, the youth and hard-pressed middle class people. But this requires a socialist programme. As well as resisting attacks on pensions, the SP can win support from working people, the unemployed and youth by boldly opposing cuts and the erosion of the welfare state, and by putting forward a clear socialist alternative: jobs for all, a properly funded education and health service, decent and affordable housing, opposition to imperialist wars and so on. By bringing the big banks and main planks of the economy into public ownership, under the democratic control and management of working people, the huge resources of society be employed to meet the needs of working-class people.
Such a socialist programme is needed to see the continuing decline of the populist, far right. The Freedom Party is now licking its wounds after a poor result in the elections. But unless the Left and the unions provide a credible alternative, decisively leading resistance to cuts and appealing for working-class unity, the populist, anti-immigrant right can make a come back, posing a real danger to workers’ unity.