Netherlands: Inquiry on refugee deaths forces ministers’ resignations

Dutch Socialist Party must fight November elections on socialist policies

Last week, ministers stepped down from the right wing Dutch government, lead by Prime Minister Balkenende. This follows the findings of a commission of inquiry into the deaths of 11 refugees, near Schiphol Airport, in October 2005. The refugees were killed by a fire at a refugee holding centre, while they awaited deportation. The commission found fire and safety regulations were not followed. If the safety regulations were followed, the commission concluded, nobody would have died. This damning indictment resulted in the two government ministers responsible being forced to step down.

Over recent years, Prime Minister Bakkenende led three different coalition governments. The first was composed of the Christian Democrats, the rightwing ‘liberal’ VVD, and the populist, racist ‘List Pim Fortuyn’ (LPF). This administration soon collapsed. New elections resulted in the removal of the LPF from power and in its place the inclusion of the so-called ‘left liberal’ D66 party. But the D66 left the ruling coalition a few months ago. New elections were announced for 22 November, and a new interim government was formed by the Christian Democrats (CDA) and the VVD, supported by the remnants of the LPF and other parties and MPs. But as last week’s ministers’ resignations shows, government crisis is non-ending.

Bad news for the government

This is bad news for the coalition government, which only a short while ago boasted about its successes. Announcing a new budget for 2007, the government was euphoric about the Netherlands (weak) economic recovery. Along with promises of better times for the Dutch people, the government thought the economic situation would give them an electoral victory in November. Although for a long time the government was the most unpopular in Dutch history, the coalition believed things were going in their favour.

The coming elections will probably focus on which party will turn out to be the biggest in parliament, and from this negotiations to form a new coalition government will take place. The Christian Democratic CDA, led by Prime Minister Balkenende, will try to make electoral gains at the expense of the social democratic PvdA, led by Wouter Bos. The PvdA stated it is in favour of cutting pensions, which allowed other rightwing parties to present the social democrats as "thieves", stealing pensioners’ money.

The right wing ‘liberal’ VVD will try a mix of neo-liberal economic policies and anti-immigrant populism to compete with the other parties, to become the largest force in a new parliament. Number two on the VVD party election list is government minister, Rita Verdonk, who is notorious for her asylum policies and who is also under attack from the commission into the refugee fire deaths. Rita Verdonk is criticised for her lack of care for the Schiphol fire victims. Instead of granting the fire survivors the possibility of staying in the Netherlands, she immediately deported several of the wounded and traumatised victims of the terrible tragedy.

The Dutch Socialist Party (SP), an opposition left-reformist party, with around 45,000 members, hopes to substantially increase its parliament seats in November’s elections. According to opinion polls, the SP will grow from its nine current seats to double figures (10-15 seats). The SP leadership hopes to govern in a new government coalition, calling for a ‘Left Coalition’. The Socialist Party’s leader, Jan Marijnissen, told the press he was willing to be a minister in a coalition government with the Christian Democrats (CDA). He only excluded governing alongside the rightwing VVD party and the anti-immigrant, populistist ‘Fortuynistic’ parties. But on a local level, for example, in Haarlem, the SP is already in government with the VVD.

So eager are the SP leaders to govern nationally, the party’s secretary said the SP election programme is ‘slightly’ to the left of the social democrats, which is a social cuts party. The SP leaders say they favour forming a so-called ‘leftwing government’ with the PvdA and the ‘social-liberal’ Green-Left party.

However, due to the intense election race between the main parties, it is not excluded the Socialist Party will loose votes to the social democrats. Given that the SP leadership refers to the social democrats as a ‘left wing party’, many of their potential voters may vote for the PvdA ‘lesser evil’ to stop the more rightwing parties coming to power.

The SP’s election programme is called, ‘A better Netherlands, for the same money’ and is, in reality, a social democratic programme. The Dutch Establishment will be relieved. The SP’s election policies show SP will not be a fundamental break with previous governments, if it comes to power. For the SP leaders, Dutch membership of NATO and the continuation of the Dutch monarchy are no longer problems. It is true there are many anti-neo-liberal phrases in the SP election programme, but it is never clearly stated the SP will reverse all the privatisations of recent years, including the sale of public transport and the energy sector. Neither is there mention of the word ‘socialism’ in the SP’s programme.

Discussion and debate on the election programme are not really encouraged inside the Socialist Party. The rules for selecting delegates for the SP’s pre-congress meetings and its actual congress, on 7 October, were changed to allow local SP branch leaders and local councillors, primarily, to become delegates. Generally speaking, these people are not the most critical of the party leadership’s policies. The SP leaders are mainly concerned with putting on a ‘good show’ for the pro-capitalist media during the October congress. They do not want critical SP members publicly airing their views at the meeting. However, members of Offensief (the Dutch CWI) who were able to overcome the new obstacles, and get elected as delegates, will actively participate in the SP congress discussions.

International Socialists thrown out of SP

The new centralising, undemocratic approach of the SP leaders was also recently shown when they threw out the Dutch International Socialists (who are part of the International Socialist Tendency, led by the British SWP) from the Socialist Party. This took place only a few months after the International Socialists (IS) joined the Socialist Party. The IS leaders claimed they discussed with the SP leadership the conditions of admission to the SP and agreement was reached before they joined the SP. Following the IS’s entry into the SP, the IS almost never made any publicly criticism of the SP leaders’ policies. The IS were mainly cheerleaders for the SP, a party which they said acted as some kind of ‘unity’ focus for the broad workers’ movement.

In the end, the IS’s opportunist policies inside the Dutch Socialist Party did not save IS members from coming under attack from the SP leaders and finding themselves expelled from the SP.

The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) in the Netherlands (Offfensief) publicly criticised the opportunist manoeuvring of the IS. Offensief has participated for years in the SP, but always on a principled basis. While the SP does attract considerable numbers of working class supporters and voters, and has quite a large, mainly working class, membership, it can only play a key role in the development of a future mass workers’ party if it adopts fighting, socialist policies and an open, democratic, inclusive party regime.

The Dutch IS takes a different position, similar to its sister party’s approach in Germany. The IS in Germany (‘Linksruck’), uncritically supports the fusion of the WASG (Electoral Alternative for Work and Social Justice) and L.PDS (Left Party/Party of Democratic Socialism, the former communist party) and opposed the Berlin WASG standing independently in recent local elections in opposition to the social democrats and L.PDS, which jointly carried out savage cuts as the city’s governing coalition. The sister party of the Dutch Offensief (CWI) in Germany, the SAV, plays a key role inside the Berlin WASG, arguing against an unprincipled ‘merger’ with the cuts-making L.PDS.

Interesting times

For revolutionary socialists in the Netherlands these are interesting times. The economy is recovering slightly, and this can lead to a rise of self-consciousness and self-confidence of the working class. At the same time, worsening working conditions continue, as a result of privatisations. These conditions lead to workers taking action. For example, in Rotterdam, a strike of city public transport workers took place recently against privatisation. If carried through, the privatisation would result in job losses and attacks on early retirement rights.

Workers and youth are also angered by international issues. The Dutch government is an enthusiastic party to George Bush’s "War on terror". Dutch soldiers fight in the Afghan province ofUruzgan. They are not sent by the politicians to build desperately needed schools or to drill water wells for impoverished Afghans but are dispatched as part of the Dutch government’s military collaboration with the US imperialist forces, to subdue and control Afghanistan for strategic and economic reasons. The first Dutch soldiers severely wounded and killed in action returned home recently, which will lead to the growing anti-war movement in the Netherlands. This movement against imperialist wars needs to be combined with building an anti-racist movement and with growing social and industrial struggles. This will be fertile ground for the growth of socialist forces. The lessons we learn from the rightward moving policies of the Dutch Socialist Party’s , and the increasingly stifling party regime, will be highly instructive as workers and youth, in much greater numbers, strive to build a new, broad, democratic and militant workers’ party.

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October 2006