Netherlands: Dutch general elections – a lost opportunity for the Socialist Party

The Dutch general election results (22 January) were a bitter disappointment for many members and supporters of the Socialist Party, a broad Left party, which had been tipped to make a historic electoral breakthrough. Instead of winning up to twenty four seats, as some polls had predicted, the SP failed to even increase on its sitting nine members of parliament.

Why did this dramatic turnaround occur? What are the lessons for socialists?

The January elections, which were held as a consequence of the fall of the previous coalition government composed of the Christian Democrats (CDA), Liberals (VVD) and the populist Lijst Pim Fortuyn (LPF), saw the Christian Democrats increased their lead. The social democratic Labour Party (PvdA – Party of Labour), under the leadership of the recently elected party leader Wouter Bos, made a spectacular recovery from the defeat it suffered at the previous elections in May. At that time many of its votes appeared to go to the LPF. On this occasion, all the smaller parties had to contend with the pulling power of the two main established parties, the CDA and PvdA, which were engaged in a tight race to become the largest party in parliament. This also had its consequences for the ex-Maoist Socialist Party, in which the members of Offensief, the Dutch section of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), are active.

Some weeks ago, the SP was polling as much as between 20 and 24 seats. This was a massive jump from their nine seats in parliament. This was not accidental. It reflected the volatile character of big sections of the population that are looking for an alternative to the main parties. Only half a year ago, a wave of discontent, almost a rebellion of anger, put an end to eight years of arrogant, neo-liberal government, in which the PvdA played a leading role. Privatisation, neglect of health care and education, growing inequality and growing crime were the legacy of the PvdA and VVD coalition governments, referred to as the ‘purple coalition’.

Rise and fall of the LPF

In the elections in May 2002, the LPF managed to exploit the mood of discontent, with right wing populist policies, including anti-immigrant policies, which played on job insecurity fears and issues of ‘law and order’. The LPF also coasted on a widespread mood of sympathy after its founder, Pim Fortuyn, was assassinated just days before polling. The hastily put together ‘party’ became the second largest force in parliament and formed a coalition with the Christian Democrats and Liberals.

However the LPF quickly revealed itself as a gang of quarrelsome egoists and careerists that had no solutions on offer for the sector of the population that they claimed to represent. It proved not to have a lasting social base of support in society. Furthermore, much of the LPF’s anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric was simply adopted by the main parties, including the PvdA, undermining the loose and diverse coalition.

But most importantly the LPF and its openly right wing coalition partners were doomed as a result of their unprecedented attack on almost all layers of the population, except the rich, of course. Temporary jobs were ended, disability payments were cut and there was a massive increase in premiums for health insurance. Workers were furious and any illusions that had existed that the coalition represented something new and anti-establishment were rapidly lost.

On the basis of a socialist campaigning opposition, inside and outside of parliament, the Socialist Party could have built a massive following during this wave of government attacks. Nevertheless, despite its lack of real campaigning on the ground (this is too strong, they did campaign on the ground, but not enough),

However the SP did still began to pick up support and new members, because many workers and youth viewed it as a radical Left alternative. This was clearly expressed in the sudden rise in support the party received in the polls, with estimates that it could jump from its nine seats in parliament to well over twenty.

However in spite of the brave face of SP party leader, Marijnissen, when the election results were announced on 22 January, it became clear that the party had gained no extra seats at all. To compound the misery, another party that describes itself as occupying the Left, the Green Left (Groen Links), lost two seats. This missed opportunity has understandably led to deep disappointment amongst SP members and supporters.

Why did so many potential SP voters decide to vote for the PvdA, the party of cuts and betrayer of the workers’ movement? A party, moreover, that just before the election proposed an arch bureaucrat as its candidate prime minister. A party that has proven again and again that it differs from the Christian Democrats only in its dots and commas? A party whose plans for disability benefits are 99% similar to those of the previous right wing coalition?

Many people have indicated that they ended up voting for Labour out of ‘strategic’ considerations. This really reflected the fact that the SP leadership squandered much of its potential support during the election campaign by mistakenly posing ‘moderate’ points of view on a whole range of issues. The leadership also publicly toyed with the idea of entering a coalition government, dominated by pro-market parties. But this is not what attracted workers and youth to the SP in the first place; they wanted a radical alternative to the pro-big business policies of the traditional parties.

SP leadership’s ‘moderate’ policies

A large number of voters had considered the SP to be a radical, socialist party. Due to that perception the party was at one point estimated to win up to 24 seats in the polls. But as the SP leadership increasingly put forward policies not much different in content to main pro-capitalist parties during the election campaign, its support declined. If the difference with the Labour Party is slight anyway, many potential SP voters reasoned, and if it is important which people we put into government, why not vote for Labour, a larger version of the SP?

Socialists have to point out that voting for Labour however will not deliver real change. Many workers were concerned that Labour should play a leading role in a possible new coalition government, undoubtedly hoping that Labour could act as a break on the right wing coalition parties and even that it could deliver some benefits.

The truth however is that Labour will not act in any way fundamentally different to the CDA or Liberals. In the 1970s, when the PvdA had a following amongst workers, who pushed the party to the Left, it was opposed intensely by the representatives of business, even though the PvDA had a right wing leadership. Labour today, however, is an openly pro-big business party. Labour and the other large parties are the political representatives of the establishment. The SP and the Green Left, for all their limitations and faults, are widely seen as parties representing the ‘other side’.

Unfortunately, the leadership of the Green Left, the SP and other Left organisations, by their polices, rolled out the red, or rather purple, carpet for the Labour Party during the January elections. They increased the illusions in the Labour Party, instead of exposing it as a pro-big business party.

Immediately after the elections last year, Green Left leader, Paul Rosenmöller, Rosenmuller (Rosenmöller), proposed a ‘Left’ co-operation pact between the liberal D66, the PvDA, the Green Left and the SP. The D66 honestly replied that they were not a Left party. But Labour was keen to adorn the title of a ‘Left’ party, in a bid to win back the support it had lost amongst the working class after carrying out neo-liberal policies for eight years in government.

The SP leadership made matters easier for the Labour leaders by stating that it was not vital to have a government that implements big changes, but that it is important to have some ‘good and honest’ ministers. The SP leadership, through Jan Marijnissen, declared itself prepared to participate in a CDA-Labour Party-SP coalition after the January elections. In other words, the SP leaders were prepared to take part a coalition dominated by neo-liberal policies and attacks on the working class.

Given this approach, it is not surprising that after the first election campaign TV debate between the leaders of the CDA, Liberals, PvDA and the SP, a national newspaper, the NRC, concluded that the difference between all parties in the debate was minimal.

Shamelessly, Jan Marijnissen congratulated the PvdA on its victory. Labour now looks likely to form a coalition government with the right wing CDA. If such a coalition comes into being it will continue the attack on living standards with renewed vigour, pushing the livings hundred of thousands people down below the poverty level. It is also likely that such a coalition will support the US in its war against Iraq (even though the PvdA put forward a different position during the campaign, and even on election night).

The SP leadership should have consistently warned the PvdA voters that a cold shower of cuts awaits them if Labour enters a coalition government, instead of lulling working class people with the idea that better policies are just around the corner.

What way forward for the SP?

The failure of the hoped for SP election breakthrough is undoubtedly a big blow for SP members and supporters. Many will be bitterly disappointed. However many SP members will now be questioning the leadership’s policies and its stated willingness to enter a right wing dominated coalition during the election campaign.

Offensief supporters in the SP, including several councillors, worked enthusiastically for a SP victory during the election campaign but also consistently warned against promoting illusions in coalition governments dominated by the big capitalist parties. Offensief also argued for the SP to campaign in the election on independent class policies, in order to fully capitalise on the incredible swelling of support the party was polling. This would have included putting forward clear opposition to the anti-immigrant policies of the main parties and against racism and discrimination in general. To counter the lies of the bigots and to tackle the deep social crisis, it is necessary to offer a programme of massive investment in jobs, housing, education and health for all.

There is no doubt that by adopting bold socialist policies and an independent class position the SP could have increased its number of seats in parliament, even if the opinion polls indicated a volatile mood. By winning over twenty seats on the basis of bold socialist policies, an aim that was entirely possible This would have placed , the the SP in an excellent position to campaign to become would have become a major pole of attraction to the working class. As a principled socialist opposition to whatever new right wing coalition is formed, including mobilising working people, the poor, the unemployed and the discriminated against minorities, against cuts and war, the SP could have begun the struggle to make further considerable electoral gains win an overall majority by the next elections.

For a mass workers’ party

When considering the future development of the Dutch Left, a number of possibilities have to be examined. The crisis of Dutch capitalism will compel more and more workers and youth into action, on many fronts, including industrial struggles. This radicalisation can throw up new Left parties/groups and workers’ political organisations, as well as an influx of workers into existing Left parties like the SP. The SP can play an important part in the process of bringing together new genuine Left organisations and radical youth to create a new mass workers’ party. Such a party needs to be inclusive and democratic if it is to win the allegiance of the new generation of class fighters.

.Offensief supporters have always opposed the false hope of right wing coalitions of any kind and argued instead that only a majority socialist government can make real change. A socialist government in the Netherlands would implement fundamental change, ending the domination of big business and, through a democratically planned economy, bringing about a massive rising of living standards for all. This would undoubtedly act as an inspiration for workers all across Europe and internationally.

Unfortunately the SP leadership never promoted such a perspective. Jan Marijnissen Majaresson swung to the right on many issues during the course of the election campaign and the party subsequently lost much of its potential support, even before polling day. As with the ‘Left’ Alliance party in New Zealand the experiences of the Dutch SP illustrates that there is no such thing as a guarantee of automatic election success for smaller parties of the Left. (The Alliance, a party supposedly to the left of NZ Labour, squandered its support amongst a section of workers and youth by taking part in a neo-liberal coalition government with Labour, and was subsequently decimated in general elections last year).

Only the adoption of an independent class programme and policies, combined with full support for the struggles of workers, can lay the basis for major electoral successes and making socialist change when in power.

Fortunately the SP came out of the elections strengthened in at least one aspect: in membership. In one year alone, the party gained more members than all other political parties put together. Its membership now stands at more than 38,000. The party is also predominantly working class.

It is now vital that with these members the SP mobilises resistance to the policies of a new coalition government. For the party to continue to grow, however, and to attract the new generation of radical youth, it also has to allow open voicing of different opinions, including opposition to the leadership. To be an energetic campaigning force, the SP has to develop its structures, providing the new members with the chance to participate in an open, democratic and inclusive party.

Resisting the establishment and the populist right

Unless a mass socialist alternative is on offer, the populist right can make a comeback on the basis of economic and social crisis and hatred of the establishment parties. It is true that the The LPF lost the vast majority of its seats in the elections but, to the surprise of many pundits, it still managed to hold onto eight. This underlines the point that even the LPF, may be finished as a force, but otheror similar formations, (including even much more right wing parties) can make gains at the polls if socialists do not fill the political space. Indeed, over the last two elections, it appears that a sizeable part of the electorate, which could have been considered ‘traditional’ Labour supporters in the past, have swung between supporting the LPF, to the SP and then to the PvdA, in a desperate attempt to find a radical solution to their problems.

The capitalist system is in crisis internationally and the crisis will sharpen in the Netherlands. This year further economic stagnation is expected in the Netherlands and it is estimated that unemployment will grow by more than 100,000 people. The consequences of a continuing downturn in the stock markets or the economic consequences of war with Iraq have not yet been calculated. A new right wing coalition government, most likely including the PvdA, will try to make workers pay for the crisis. It is the task of socialists to make sure that people are not lulled by the false promises of supposedly ‘Left’ parties, like Labour, but that we mobilise as many working people and youth as possible to take action to stop cuts and to build support for a real socialist alternative.

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January 2003