Netherlands: Big gains for the anti-immigrant ‘Freedom Party’ in Euro elections

Opposition Socialist Party appeals to Dutch nationalism but fails to make polls headway

As has been widely reported internationally, the far right received 17% of the vote in the Netherlands in the Euro election on 4 June. How did this happen? It was not a sudden victory for the far right. In the national elections, in 2002, the Lijst Pim Fortuyn received 17% of the vote. In the national elections, in 2003, their support had dwindled because of their participation in a right-wing coalition government with the Christian Democrats. In 2008, a party called ‘Proud of the Netherlands’, led by a breakaway politician from the right wing Liberal Party, received around 20% of support in the polls. Because of internal mismanagement, support for this party has now disappeared and Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party has stepped into the vacuum left behind.

Since 2001, there has been a consistent layer of support for right-wing parties in the Netherlands: the organisations change, as do the leaders, but the support remains. This is not to say that there are no dangers in the situation. The Freedom Party strategy in the run up to national elections, in May 2011, will see the party only put up candidates on whom they can exercise strict control (they call it a “quality problem”) for the municipal elections. This means they will have fewer candidates, probably only in cities with stronger support for the far right, like Rotterdam. This will frustrate Freedom Party supporters, who will wonder why their municipal results will not be as good as in the Euro elections of 2009. The Freedom Party will leaders will aim to build for the national elections in 2011. They hope to become the largest party in the Netherlands and that their leader, Geert Wilders, will have the opportunity to form a new national government.

The Netherlands is different from other European countries, in the sense that it has a party which in the eyes of many workers represents their interests: the Socialist Party – a broad left reformist party with Maoist origins. In June 2009, the Socialist Party received slightly more votes than it did in previous European elections and the party leadership has called this a “victory”. But the party received a lot less votes than it did in the previous national elections, in November 2006, when it got 17%. The referendum on the European Constitution, in 2005, and the national elections at the end of 2006, marked the heyday of support for the SP. It captured a lot of the protest vote at the time, but it seems to have lost many of those voters in June 2009.

The rise of the extreme right poses an enormous challenge to the Dutch labour movement and the SP. At the moment, there is very little organized resistance against the attempts of employers and the government to unload the economic crisis onto the backs of workers. The government is not in a very strong position to carry out its proposals to increase the pension age to 67 but the trade union movement is relying solely on its “negotiating powers” in order to stop the pension plans. When it becomes clear that this crisis is not going to go away next year, resistance will increase. The SP has the potential to capture the growing mood of discontent, to translate it into mass action and to win the elections in 2011 in a convincing way. Unfortunately, the SP leaders are not moving in this direction right now, but continue on a rightward trend, participating in local coalitions with pro-capitalist parties. The SP leadership has even expelled socialists from its ranks and has also launched attacks against supporters of the Offensief newspaper, who argue for the SP to adopt an internationalist, socialist programme and for real democracy inside the SP.

Volatile situation

It is, however, likely that the Freedom Party will continue to be successful for some time. With the lack of convincing resistance against government cuts, Wilders will try to drive a deeper wedge between workers of foreign origin and Dutch workers. He is also putting forward populist demands, like calling for an end to bonuses for bankers. The Freedom Party might even enter government in 2011. However, the piling up of cuts and assaults on the Dutch working class, and the growing volatile political situation, will soon combine to spur the labour movement into action. United mass workers’ action will cut across the ideas and support of the populist far right. It will also provide a big opportunity for the workers’ movement to develop its strength and confidence. The SP will be faced with the potential to grow and to win wider support amongst workers. But to be successful, the SP will need to adopt bolder socialist policies that show a way out of the economic crisis, which answer the fears and anger of Dutch workers facing big cuts, and which provides an alternative to the politics of the populist right and indeed to the capitalist system. The attacks against genuine socialists must stop! The SP must open up to workers and youth, allowing a lively internal debate and discussion, with fully democratic structures. The SP needs to be a campaigning mass party that energetically fights on behalf of all working people and youth; for workers’ unity and socialism.

Prospects for the Dutch Socialist Party?

For Graham Watson, leader of the liberal block in the European parliament, the message of the voters in European elections was clear: “People do not want to return to socialism that is the reason why the majority will be center-right”. But is that true? What went wrong for the left? In the case of the Netherlands, why did the Socialist Party, a formerly Maoist party, that has developed itself into a broad populist left party, fail so badly in the Netherlands Euro elections?

The major Dutch newspapers are celebrating at the EU election results. The Trouw newspaper headline said: “Europe looks at the right for refuge” and “Europe choses the right in times of economic crisis. Whether they are part of the government or in opposition, the Social Democratic parties suffer a thundering defeat in the elections for the Euro parliament”. The NRC Handelsblad adds: “What crisis of capitalism? After the Netherlands, which voted on Thursday, today most other countries of the European Union held European Parliament elections. What was revealed? Voters voted mostly for (center) right-wing parties. The parties who in recent years in Europe have opted for [more of the] market”. The NRC Next summarized with a front page headline: “Europe remains right”.

For the ruling class, this is good news, and they take it mean it will be ‘business as usual’ for the next 5 years for the EU, without having to worry about any kind of real opposition.

In the Netherlands, the Labour Party (PvdA) halved its vote, from 23.6% to 12.1%. Since the 1980’s, the PvdA moved to the right and embraced neo-liberal ‘logic’. As a result, it was abandoned by workers. In 1980, the PvdA had 112,929 members, now there are only 56,507 and this is dropping at a rate of 3000 each year.

With the absence of a credible left alternative in many countries, the extreme right did shockingly well. With no less than 17% of the votes cast, the Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders in the Netherlands was able to exploit the mood against the policies of the ruling national coalition government. The anti-Islamic party won four MEP seats. Wilders ran on a ticket of opposition to Turkey’s accession to the EU and also demanded that Bulgaria and Romania be kicked out. Wilders also called on for a reduction on the amount the Netherlands pays towards pan-European institutions.

The Socialist Party, a formerly Maoist party, has developed itself into a populist left party, with an activist basis, over the past few decades. It has around 50,000 members and it is the third party in the Netherlands both in terms of MP’s and in membership (behind the Christian Democrats (CDA) and the Social Democrats (PvdA). Ever since the SP won seats in the national parliament in 1994, it always made further electoral gains.

After these Euro elections, the party claimed that it is “back on the winners’ list” again. In the words of campaign leader, Dennis de Jong: “You have winners and losers and we are, yet again, on the winners’ list. Unfortunately, only 4 out of 10 people voted.” But is this correct? The SP won 7.1% of the votes, which is just a 0.1% increase over the 2004 EU elections. In addition, in the 2006 Dutch Lower House elections, the party won 16.6% of votes cast. The EU vote translated to the Lower House today would see the SP win 11 seats, which is 14 less than what the party holds now. This corresponds to the opinion polls that put the party consistently on at least 10 seats less that it has at present. It is, therefore, inappropriate to speak about "being a winner" in the EU elections.

After the Euro referendum in 2005, where the ‘No’ campaign, led by the SP, was the big winner, the party leadership concluded that we all want “less Brussels”. “The established parties, the Christian Democrats [CDA], Labour [PvdA] and [Liberals] VVD) are punished for their pro-European course of recent years,” commented SP Chair and MP, Agnes Kant. “Since the Constitution campaign in 2005, the parties quickly turned euro-critical. So far only in words. We will keep them to their promises”.

The SP waged a nationalist campaign during the EU elections. There was no alternative put to “big, bad Brussels” beyond the idea that we in the Netherlands can do things so much better and ‘more social’ ourselves.


Is that so? Of course not, but nationalism is deeply rooted in the thinking of the SP leadership. In an SP campaign against the sale of an energy company, one of the arguments raised was that we should not sell it to the Germans. Are the Dutch managers so much better? Certainly not! Actually, earlier in its campaign, the SP (quite correctly) campaigned against the exorbitant wage of 800,000 euros for the director of the company. But during the “They’re NUTS!” campaign, the SP leaders just claimed that the energy company is a public company and it should remain that way. In short, no-class alternative was given that explained how to benefit workers, the young and the poor, but instead just a defense of the current state of things, i.e. of the energy company as a company with shareholders with a profit incentive and where we are paying the energy bill for.

There are other themes where the SP highlights the concerns of the ‘native’ Dutch people instead of workers irrespective of their origin. In 2005, the party started a website where “competition from Polish workers” could be reported by people who had lost their jobs when migrant workers worked on lower wages than the Dutch. Not that the parasitic capitalist was the problem, but the migrant worker! Only later did the party leadership adopt the slogan of the trade unions: Equal pay for equal work!

The “less Brussels” campaign fits into this picture and is a logical continuation of the No-campaign in 2005. As well as this, there was no alternative put forward to the EU – the SP were simply against it. The campaign poster at the time was also pretty clear in its message: one in which the Netherlands no longer exists.

This strategy worked successfully for the leadership for years but now it has failed and did not have the desired result (further electoral growth). This is entirely due to the fact that beside the right nationalist party, the PVV (Freedom Party of Geert Wilders), the SP nationalism is “soft”.

The rise of the right in Europe and also in the Netherlands, creates many problems. Not only does it give right nationalist and racist ideas soil in which to grow, but also gives the far-right much more confidence and boldness. The neo-Nazi NVU increasingly marches in Dutch cities, and it seems only a matter of time before they will win considerably more members. It is important to continue the fight against the far-right and to organize a massive mobilization against it.

Socialists are internationalists. We believe that workers, young, poor and minority groups in society have absolutely no interest in nationalism. The US black civil rights movement leader, Malcolm X, stated over 40 years ago “There can be no capitalism without racism”. Racism and nationalism are widely used tools of the ruling elite in their divide-and-rule politics. Karl Marx earlier stated in the Communist Manifesto that workers have “no fatherland”. World capitalism compels the working class to unite in common interests: we are all fighting against the same oppression and exploitation by a parasitic system!

That said, the European Union is a neo-liberal project – a collaboration of the ruling elites of different countries to exploit workers more efficiently. There are many examples of this. Immigrant workers working at a lower wage is one of them. Racism and nationalism is another example. Moreover, the bosses want us to pay for the crisis, as do their political representatives in the European Parliament.

Workers and youth need a clear alternative to the EU of the bosses. This we can build on the basis of internationalism, solidarity and a clear socialist alternative. Discussion on this matter is of vital importance. Lessons need to be learned from the EU elections. Let the starting point of this discussion be the goal of a European federation of socialist states!

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July 2009