Netherlands: Elections – Abrupt awakening

THE RECENT Dutch elections were nothing short of an earthquake, expressing frustration and disappointment with the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA). The winners were the Christian Democratic Party, which was in government from 1918-94 (longer than the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, as the joke goes) and the List Pim Fortuyn (LPF), named after an academic who turned politician with remarkable success. He was shot on 6 May, the first political assassination in the Netherlands for many years. An environmentalist and animal rights activist, Volkert van der Graaf, is in police custody for the murder.

The swing to the right does not, however, reflect solid political support for conservative ideas. It is rather a sign of aversion to established parties and policies. The result displays tremendous anger over the bankruptcy of the so-called ‘Polder model’, the Dutch version of social partnership that paralysed the class struggle. In that climate the capitalists and their parties, which did not seem to differ much programmatically, had a free hand in ruining Dutch society. Social services deteriorated, wages were kept down, and there was a complete failure to aid the integration of immigrants into society or to tackle the poverty in one of the richest countries in the world. Fortuyn, in his own distorted way, tapped into this mood and presented himself as the most vigorous anti-establishment candidate.

The Dutch elections seemed to become a victory for the right from the beginning. A year ago it seemed as if the Liberal Party was going to become the biggest party in parliament. Coalition politics forced it to keep a middle road and a vacuum developed on the right. Into this stepped Fortuyn. He developed a political movement in a few short months. He was a soloist, but needed a party. His party organisation is firmly controlled by small and middle-sized capitalists who want a more direct say in politics.

Fortuyn’s style was very attractive to the media and he knew how to get the established politicians on edge. He was not the usual type of racist, but he played on peoples’ fears of the growth of the immigrant community. He succeeded in splitting the right-wing vote to the benefit of his own list, but he increased support for the right as a whole. Socialists, of course, condemn Fortuyn’s killing unreservedly, and recognise the counterproductive effects it has, especially on provoking hostility towards ‘the left’.

His murder not only left the LPF without its dominating leader, but also without a party organisation, programme or philosophy. Its main legacy is the emotions that he stirred and the strong feelings around his death. It is very unclear what points of Fortuyn’s contradictory statements and proposals will remain in the LPF programme, now it is taking part in the negotiations for a new government. The mathematics of the next coalition government are clear: a combination of Christian Democrats, Liberal Party and LPF – a right-wing government which would have a staggering 92 seats in a parliament of 150. But the politics are not so easy. The LPF wants to close the Dutch borders to immigration, except in very limited numbers. The Christian Democrats do not go this far and have to take a certain amount of Christian sentiments into account. Fortuyn himself has called Islam ‘backward’, later adjusting that to ‘backwardish’, and this lashing out at religion does not rest easy with the Christian Democrats. The Liberal Party is not enthusiastic about participating in government because of its election losses.

Nevertheless, a right-wing government seems to be on the political agenda. LPF is a pro-business party which supports neo-liberal policies. Its measures will anger the working class, which wants bigger wage increases, a functioning health care system, education and a reasonable standard of social security. These are not available and will be even less so under such a right-wing coalition. The unions will probably be forced into action and even though protests on the scale of Italy are unlikely in the short term, events in Italy provide us with insight into the future of the Netherlands. Social unrest and union protest will provide the basis for the political regeneration of the working class.

Gains for Dutch Socialist Party

At present, the Socialist Party (SP) in The Netherlands is the only party that reflects the interests of ordinary people, consistently fighting against the neo-liberal policies of the last government. It increased its number of seats from five to nine in the elections. The Socialist Party was originally a Maoist group that has developed into a broadly-based party with 30,000 members and a sizeable representation in parliament. On a local level, however, it co-operates with bourgeois parties. The danger is that, like the Green Left, its ‘governmental tendencies’ will become stronger and might even come to dominate the party.

That is why Offensief, the Dutch section of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), argues inside the Dutch SP for socialist demands and a militant struggle for working-class interests. On the basis of this struggle to turn the SP into the new mass workers’ party that we need, four local SP councillors have been won to Offensief.

The main questions for the future are: how long will it take for resistance to right-wing capitalist policies to develop? To what extent will the Labour Party be able to profit from this? Will the Socialist Party develop into a principled party of opposition and give leadership to working-class opposition to the right?

The present election result is unstable. Many people voted for the Christian Democrats because they no longer wanted to vote for the Liberal Party and wanted to avoid the unstable LPF. The support for the Christian Democrats is not very solid and might evaporate at the next elections. LPF will go through a number of crises and possibly a right-wing party will spring from it. Many of its voters, however, are likely to go back to the Liberal Party at the next elections.

A haven of stability no longer

The Netherlands was a haven of political stability in the past. Its politics exuded the idea of consensus and co-operation between parties and classes. In that respect it used to be a quiet, almost non-political country. Central to the economic and political policies was keeping wages about 15% below those in Germany. The trade union bureaucracy saw to this. As the economy expanded in the 1990s, wages were kept low by introducing women to the labour market, mainly in badly paid part-time jobs. During the boom years tensions continued to build up. Waiting lists for healthcare, a lack of teachers and funding in education, increased insecurity on the streets, were all symptoms of increasing crisis in Dutch capitalism.

After union resistance to capitalist policies subsided under the influence of the union leaders like Wim Kok, the Dutch working class turned its hopes towards the Labour Party. Under the attacks of the right wing governments in the 1980s, the support for the Labour Party started to grow in the run up to the elections in 1986. A parliamentary majority for the Labour Party was in sight.

But when the party, with Wim Kok taking the leadership in 1986, started its election campaign it made it clear that its only purpose was to oust the Liberal Party (conservatives) from the coalition with the Christian Democrats and form a government with the Christian Democrats itself. This prospect had no appeal to the working class, and support for the Labour Party started to dwindle. The results of the 1986 election were not too bad for the Labour Party, but it was nowhere near a majority. The Labour Party succeeded in forming a coalition with the Christian Democrats in 1990. This government fell apart when the Christian Democrats lost a historic 20 seats in 1994.

The Labour Party then made a surprising move. It entered into a coalition with the Liberal Party. Under the influence of neo-liberalism, the Liberal Party used the Labour Party for its own ends. It became clear to many people that the Labour Party was no longer an organisation that in any way represented the working class. It squeezed it dry, until it lost a staggering 22 seats at these latest elections.

The Netherlands has woken up to the 21st century. The ‘Polder model’ type of politics has proven to be an illusion. The Netherlands is a country like all the other European countries, with right and left as opposites. It is a matter of time before the working class will reassert itself, as it is starting to do in Italy and France. The political protests against the right in those countries and the trade union movement in Germany show the way forward. The frustrations about the failure of social democracy, the lack of a mass workers’ party and the bureaucracy in the unions, cannot be diverted to the right indefinitely.

This article will appear in the June 2002 issue of Socialism Today, the monthly journal of the Socialist Party (England and Wales CWI section)

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June 2002