Thursday

21st Feb 2019

Opinion

How to stop the collapse of the Dutch left

  • Traditional Dutch windmill and a billboard with the many fragmented Dutch political parties. (Photo: Peter Teffer)

The Dutch elections did not herald a populist spring in Europe. So much for the good news.

Contrary to the prevailing coverage in foreign media, the takeaway of the Dutch elections should not be that Wilders' PVV party didn't acquire a leading position - this was to be expected - or that the 30-year-old green candidate, Jesse Klaver, won ten seats (this was, however laudable, largely at the expense of other left-wing parties).

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The key takeaway should rather be the consolidation of conservative and right-wing liberal parties in the Netherlands, and the further fragmentation of the political landscape.

The left-wing parties of PvdA (S&D), Groen-Links (Greens) and SP (GUE) have taken fewer seats altogether in the parliament than the PvdA had in its past mandate: 37 vs 38. They now represent less than a quarter of the votes.

The collapsing left

How did the left collapse so badly?

One strand of thought considers the disappearing dichotomy between left and right on socio-economic issues. Some see this as a structural tendency, whereas others see this as a temporary phenomenon.

The liberal-conservative VVD and the social-democrat PvdA were the biggest adversaries in the 2012 election, but the coalition government of these two parties minimised the differences between them.

Indeed, a demonstration of the differences – on many issues such as tax avoidance, bankers’ bonus, flexible labour contract, and so on – is necessary for the voters to see the dichotomy, and it is necessary for the election campaign to revolve around socio-economic issues.

Another strand of thought points to the ongoing fragmentation of the political landscape.

The Socialist Party of Emile Roemer has been competing with the charismatic new kid, Jesse Klaver, to draw in disenchanted PvdA voters.

Yet only 10 of the 29 seats that were lost went to either of the two left-wing parties according to IPSOS, a research firm.

In fact, it was very clear that neither of these two parties were good alternatives. Some voters turned to Liberal party D66, which takes a position in the middle, and some did not turn up to the ballot boxes at all.

New parties

Others found their way to relatively new parties.

For instance, ‘Denk’ won three seats from voters with non-Dutch ethnic backgrounds, mainly Turkish and Moroccan. 50+, a party that focuses on upset pensioners, increased its share to four seats. Finally, the animal party - a mixed bag of extreme left, ecologists and EU sceptics - captured a further five seats.

Yet, Mr. Rutte did not suffer from the fragmentation, even though there has been a flurry of new right-wing parties. Despite having lost eight seats, his liberal-conservative VVD remains in an unchallenged pole position.

It is surprising to see how tepidly many among the left have responded to this defeat, sharing in the Europe-wide sigh of relief after holding off Geert Wilders.

It could be said that the decline of the left is a mix of both tendencies. The PvdA has not been able to contrast with and confront the right-wing Mark Rutte, and the scattering of the political field into special interest parties has paralysed and diluted the left.

The result

So, we will face a third term of a prime minister whose party has taken no measures on climate change. A party that pursues an active agenda of making our country more unequal. A party that celebrates the blessings of tax avoidance (under the euphemism of ‘positive investment climate’).

A party that greedily adopts the belligerent anti-immigration language of Geert Wilders, to pay lip service to his potential voters.

Wilders won five seats and lost any prospect of governing, but his biggest win is that he lured people into believing that the elections were a struggle between right and far-right

After two decades of right-wing prime ministers, there is a tremendous amount of work to do for the left to make the Netherlands more inclusive, more equal and more socially just.

The onus will be on a broad left-wing movement that can connect people beyond special interests and that dares to confront and contrast with the right.

Let’s start our fight.

Paul Tang is a Dutch MEP from the Socialists & Democrats Group in the European Parliament and a member of the Labour Party (PvdA) in the Netherlands.

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