Netherlands: Elections bring major changes to political landscape

Left course needed to build on Socialist Party’s polls breakthrough

The 22 November general elections in the Netherlands brought major changes. The results were a defeat for the right. For many years, the workers’ movement was told to accept the ‘reform’ programme of the bosses and their parties. Protest was “unacceptable, useless and ineffective” working people were told. This argument no longer holds water. The main pro-capitalist parties all suffered setbacks, with the Liberals (VVD) losing 6 seats, the Christian Democrats losing 3, and the PvdA (Social Democrats) losing 9.

The increase in votes for the Dutch Socialist Party (SP), winning 16 extra seats, is a big step forward for the party and potentially for the working class movement, as a whole. For the first time since 1994, when the Labour Party (PvdA) definitively stopped representing the interests of workers and its leadership went completely over to the dictates of capitalism, there is a strong party with mass working class support that, with correct policies, can act in the interests of working people and youth. The Socialist Party has grown in size and influence, for some time, but it has now succeeded in winning the confidence of workers on a wide scale. This is an historic achievement and a major change in the Dutch political situation.

The Dutch SP came out of a Maoist party, but broadened its appeal, winning two seats to parliament in 1994 and a European parliament seat in 1999. As the main parties, including the PvdA (Labour), moved to the right in the 1990s, the SP picked up support from workers and youth. In 2003, the SP got nine seats. Local elections, earlier this year, saw the SP double its number of seats. After this week’s parliament breakthrough, the SP is now the third largest party in parliament, and, with over 40,000 members, it is the third largest membership party. There is clearly huge potential for the SP to develop, to help create a mass socialist alternative to the main parties. But this can only be done by building the SP as an independent class alternative.

SP in coalition government?

Although the Socialist Party (SP) made big electoral gains, its position is not secured. The trust of the working class in the SP could be shattered if the party entered into a coalition government with the main pro-bosses’ parties. Inevitably, in this situation, the SP would be forced to ‘compromise’ and carry out pro-capitalist policies. In that case, the Socialist Party could very rapidly go through the process of losing working class support, which the Labour Party took decades to complete.

After years of right wing, cuts-making coalition administrations, some SP voters may desperately hope that the inclusion of the SP in a coalition government may bring some much-needed genuine reforms, or at least stop or lessen anti-working class cuts and attacks on rights. But the SP’s entry into a coalition, made up, for instance, of the Christian Democrats, the Labour Party and the Socialist Party, would be a fatal political mistake. Hundreds of thousands of voters would turn their backs on the Socialist Party, as right wing-dominated coalition government policies would deeply disappoint them. The Christian Democrats, the strongest party now in parliament, will allow any party into government as long as it helps them to carry out their anti-working class policies!

The Socialist Party needs to say ‘no’ to big business-dominated government and build on its strong working class and youth support. Experience shows that when the Socialist Party links up with worker’s struggles, the party wins support. Recently, bus drivers protesting against privatisation in the south of the Netherlands, queued up to join the Socialist Party. Supporters of Offensief (the Dutch section of the CWI, which participates in the SP), were active in the local SP’s support for the bus workers..

At the moment, the leadership of the Socialist Party is, unfortunately, willing to discuss the possibility of entering a coalition government. Although Jan Marijnissen, the leader of the Socialist Party for about 20 years, said he was not optimistic about the possibility of getting an agreement with the other main parties, and stated that he harbours no illusions that talks will succeed due to insurmountable differences of policies, the implication is that if the Christian Democrats and Labour Party would make a switch to more ‘social’ policies, a coalition government, including the SP, would be possible.

At the moment, it looks as if the Christian Democrats (CDU) will form a new coalition without the SP. Even though they lost three seats, the CDU claim to have ‘won’ the election because they have come out as the largest party (they have been the largest party in the Netherlands since they were founded in 1976). And they claim that they have won the election because their policies of cuts and privatisation made the economy healthy again. The CDU are in no mood for compromise and will cling to the policies and approach of the present prime minister, Balkenende. This makes a coalition of the Christian Democrats, the Labour Party and the Christian Union (a smaller Christian Party that gained seats in the election) more likely, as it is more ‘manageable’ for the Christian Democrats, compared to a coalition of the Christian Democrats, the Labour Party and the Socialist Party.

Big rejection of cuts

Generally speaking, the 2002 elections in the Netherlands showed a volatile electorate, including a big shift to the populist right, when the anti-immigrant party of Pim Fortuyn (who was murdered just before the election) got a massive vote. In 2003, there was a shift back to the main bosses’ parties, the CDA and the Labour Party, but the ruling class managed to assemble a right wing government together with the Liberals (VVD). The 2006 elections show a shift to the left, with the unexpected (for much of the main parties and media, at least) strengthening of the Socialist Party. Although the vote for the SP is a very positive indication of this shift to the left in society, the hard right also made gains. The anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic, ‘Party for Freedom’ (PVV), led by Geert Wilders, took nine seats, standing for the first time.

The elections were a historic shock to Prime Minister Balkenende and his rich friends, who cut and slashed welfare, for years. They refused any pay increases for workers, while managers pocketed unlimited amounts of euros. They also carried out a ‘slash and burn’ policy in health care and education. Their motto was: “You are responsible yourself”, meaning the state was no longer responsible for anything or anybody, except the rich.

The election result was also a punishment for the unlimited arrogance the government displayed in ignoring a mass trade union demonstration against cuts, in October 2004, and in paying no attention, at all, to the governing parties’ massive defeat in the referendum over a European constitution, in June 2005.

The Labour Party, among the pro-bosses’ parties, was also punished in the recent elections, even though it is an ‘opposition’ party. On many occasions, the Labour Party voted with the government parties in for cuts and in favour of a ‘new health system’, for instance. Labour was ‘pro-Europe’ (i.e. pro-neo-liberal agenda) in the 2005 referendum and the party supported the government buying the ‘Joint Strike Fighter’ military programme for an enormous amount of state money. The so-called ‘opposition’ Labour also supported the coalition government sending troops to imperialist-occupied Afghanistan. The Labour Party explicitly refused to pledge to reverse government policies, if it comes to power. The party supported attacks on the pension system and, in some cases, went further than the government in its cuts-proposals, over, for example, benefits for older people.

Class struggle enters new period

The class struggle in the Netherlands has entered a new period. Apart from sections of older workers and workers from of foreign origin, the working class showed they have no confidence in the Labour Party, any more. The SP has become a mass party electorally; its task should be to serve the interests of working people, by action on the streets and by promoting the class interests of working people in parliament. The SP has an enormous responsibility: its policies and role will, in many ways, have a huge bearing on the fortunes of the Dutch working class in the coming period.

It will be difficult to form a new government and a new coalition is likely to be unstable. But the pro-capitalist politicians will do everything in their power to continue their policies of cuts, privatisations, ‘reforms’ and the general lowering of wages and working conditions. They will continue to push through privatisation in health care, welfare, public transport and public utilities.

2007 will be a year of much trade union protest action. 2006 showed the beginning of this process. There will be struggles for collective labour contracts and workers will try to regain some of their past wage losses. There will be struggles against privatisations and job losses. There will much resistance in society, and now the SP is much stronger in parliament, it will give these struggles a positive impulse. It is the task of the SP to give a political voice to these struggles and to unite them. This requires the SP to be an open, inclusive party, that is attractive to the new generation, and which has democratic debate on the way forward.

After 22 November, the working class will have to fight new attacks on their living standards. A new cabinet, like all governments in the past 30 years, whatever its composition, will carry out cuts, especially when the economy cools down again. A strong opposition to a right wing coalition government is needed in the trade unions and on the political field. This is where the future of the SP lies. If the SP makes a choice for bold socialist policies, allied with grassroots campaigning with workers, youth, discriminated-against minorities and wider working class communities, the SP can quickly grow, in membership, influence and electorally. This would prepare the way for a majority socialist government, bringing about far-reaching socialist policies.

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November 2006