Overcoming a false dichotomy
Where does the general election leave the Netherlands? Piet Potlood looks at the contending forces and points to the weakness of the left
Following the Dutch general election of Wednesday September 12 the Dutch political landscape has changed dramatically. The previous coalition, between the VVD ‘Liberals’ and Christian Democrats, with the support of Geert Wilders’ far-right Party for Freedom, fell in April, making these elections necessary. So what has changed?
To understand the intricacies of Dutch politics one must first understand something about its context. As far as I can see, the last time there was any substantial comment on Dutch politics in the Weekly Worker was back in 2002,1 so it is probably a good idea to start with a refresher.
First one must understand that the Netherlands is one of the few places on the planet where there is a more or less pure form of proportional representation. There are 150 seats in parliament (more commonly referred to as the Second Chamber) and the whole country is, to speak in British terms, one constituency. If a party gains the total votes cast divided by 150, they get one seat. This time there were 9,424,235 people who voted, so 62,829 represented the threshold for election.
That said, there are always those who want to limit the ability of small parties to get into parliament. The most recent example is of employers’ representative Bernard Wientjes, who proposed that there should be a minimum requirement of five times the threshold and a minimum of five seats for any party.2 For its part, the outgoing cabinet proposed to reduce the number of seats from 150 to 100.
Anyway, MPs representing 11 parties were elected to parliament this time and these are the most important:
- VVD: The ‘Liberals’ (although by British standards they are more like Conservatives) were the biggest party in the previous election, but this time increased their tally to 41 seats, their best election result. In the previous administration, Mark Rutte was the first ever VVD prime minister.
- CDA: The Christian Democrats, the traditional party of power, was able to rule practically alone until the 1970s, but has more recently seen its support decrease. In 2010, its representation shrunk from 41 to 21 seats, but this time around it emerged with a staggeringly low figure of 13. This represents a longer-term realignment within Dutch politics.
- PvdA: The Labour Party differs from the party with the same name in Britain in that it has never had a formal link to the trade unions, financial or otherwise - although there have, of course, been quite a few personal ties between the two. In particular Wim Kok, prime minister from 1994 to 2002, was the former leader of the Dutch trade union federation, the FNV. This time, the party’s MPs increased from 30 to 38.
- SP: The Socialist Party is a larger leftwing party, with about 44,000 members - only the PvdA and CDA are bigger.3 It is interesting in that it has a rather large activist base that emphasises being seen out on the street. In the past the SP, which started out as a Maoist grouplet in 1972, has organised local services like free healthcare (obviously on a very limited scale). More recently, it has often been central in the organising of big demonstrations, but in the last few years the stress has been on elections, both locally and nationally, and being ‘seen on the streets’ is now regarded as a subsidiary aspect of the party’s parliamentary work.
- In the run-up to these elections the SP was polling at 35 seats or higher for quite a few weeks and for a moment it even looked as though it was going to become the biggest party in parliament - a prospect that provoked a degree of consternation in elite circles. However, the SP ended up with the same number of seats it won in 2010: 15. More on this below.
- PVV: The far-right party of Geert Wilders, having enjoyed a huge boost in 2010 when it won 24 seats (before that Wilders was a lone breakaway MP from the VVD), saw a significant drop to 15 seats. Part of the reason for this can no doubt be found in the fact that Wilders’ demagoguery has had less purchase in view of his support for the previous cabinet, which implemented very few policies that one would associate with Wilders. This time around, he changed his tune and, instead of focusing on the ‘Muslim threat’, gambled on tapping into an anti-Europe sentiment. However, this can hardly be said to have paid off - the Dutch media have enthusiastically reported on how the ‘pro-Europe parties won the election’ (the SP being the other big anti-EU party).
- GroenLinks: The Greens, while always having been small, deserve a mention because of their history. This party was founded in 1990 as a fusion of four groups, one of which was the Dutch Communist Party. So, yes, that is where the old pro-Moscow party went, in case you were wondering. These days the Greens are remarkably (or perhaps not so remarkably) on the neoliberal right on many issues, such as labour legislation. They suffered a meltdown in these elections and slumped from 10 to four seats.
- D’66: The Democrats are the last party I want to mention. You could say that they are the ‘real liberals’, as compared to the more conservative and rightwing VVD. In their election campaign they aimed specifically for the better educated and more fortunate - the same target audience, incidentally, as GroenLinks - and presented themselves as a solid, safe pair of hands for prospective coalition partners. They had a small rise in support from 10 to 12 seats, but, given the dominance of VVD and PvdA, it is unlikely they will get into the next coalition.
Right and left
As I have said, the last government coalition fell in April. This produced a somewhat strange situation for Dutch politics in that there was a formal minority government with VVD and CDA ministers, but with outside support from Wilders’ PVV.
The coalition was meant to be mutually beneficial for the PVV and VVD. Both parties have for a long time been clones when it comes to economic policy. So, Wilders could pose as both a supporter of the coalition and leader of the opposition (throwing the occasional verbal hand grenade in the direction of the coalition). The VVD, on the other hand, could carry on with its agenda, in the absence of any real opposition, while the CDA played a not too dissimilar role to that of the Liberal Democrats in the UK: a junior coalition partner tied hand and foot to the bigger party. It was a lose-lose situation for them.
But what looked like a solid relationship for almost two years was thrown into crisis when the PVV suddenly changed tack over the next round of threatened cuts. Wilders opportunistically pulled the plug and forced new elections, fearing that backing such cuts would wipe out his party’s support. By doing so, he hoped to be seen as ‘principled’, but the ploy was not exactly successful.
As noted, the SP, for its part, was heading for between 35 and 40 seats in July and August. However, just before election day its support evaporated. What happened?
I think the main reason lies in the fact that the SP, which has never been in government, picked up support by presenting itself as the party of principled opposition. However, in 2006, when it got its best result with 25 seats, it attempted to position itself as an respectable coalition partner. There were no takers, but ever since the party has steadily moved to the right. For example, in these elections, significantly, it dropped its opposition to raising the retirement age from 65 to 67. When this was highlighted in the mass media, the party was unable to offer any convincing explanation in keeping with its previous radical image.
Incidentally, the dynamic I have described is exactly one of the reasons I do not support the CPGB majority position in favour of proportional representation. While it is obviously true that PR means you could get elected far more easily than is now possible in the UK. This also carries with it a trap - the allure of being ‘sucked into the system’, a breeding ground for Realpolitik. The Dutch bourgeoisie has historically been very proficient in exploiting the ‘We’re all in this together’ idea. Parliament is one example of this and the SP shows exactly what can happen once you get big enough for the coalition question to be posed.
But this question deserves a more thorough discussion.
Another reason for the SP’s inability to gain ground can be found in its focus on personalities during the election campaign. The performance of SP leader Emile Roemer was poor in the televised debates - he often had no ready answers and resorted to shallow attacks on his opponents. This was exploited by the media to show how unfit the SP is for coalition government. The satirical and elitist Quote magazine even published a feature depicting Roemer as a homicidal maniac armed with a chainsaw and covered in blood.4
Whatever the reason, the SP lost its lead in the polls and has seen its position as the left pole of Dutch politics taken over by the PvdA (the right pole is still occupied by the VVD), and SP support has further decreased. In fact if the elections had been delayed by even a few days later, the SP would probably have lost quite a few of its 15 seats.
Only six days after the elections, there was what is known as ‘Prinsjesdag’ (Prince’s Day), when the following year’s budget is presented. This time that duty fell to the outgoing cabinet and its budget contained proposals for a further €12 billion in cuts, bringing down the deficit below the requisite 3%. But it does this by cutting into the purchasing power of working class people, who have already been hit by a wage freeze and pension cuts these last few years.
A particularly controversial cut is what is commonly called the ‘commuter’s tax’. Many people get compensation for travelling to work, and so for many public transport is free, paid for by the bosses. The outgoing cabinet, however, proposed a tax on this compensation in order to raise €1.3 billion in the next financial year. But the most likely post-election coalition will be between the VVD and PvdA, and this tax could well go out of the window - the latter made it a key point of its election campaign. So no doubt the incoming administration will be looking for an alternative way of cutting €1.3 billion ...
The performance of the far left, which is extraordinarily small in the Netherlands, has been dismal in all this. Many groups called for a vote for the SP, critical or uncritical, a recommendation partly explained by their own weakness.
The biggest, most visible group is the International Socialists, Dutch franchise of the British Socialist Workers Party, which has about 200 members. On August 28 it called for a critical vote for the SP - not in order to raise hopes in a left government “that can solve the problems of the working class”, but to “form an effective opposition that can block VVD policies” and in the meantime “build an opposition on the streets, in workplaces and universities” against neoliberal policies.5
Its September 13 article maintained that line, arguing that it is “better to have an SP with 15 seats that connects the fight on the streets with that in parliament”. The IS is not expecting any initiative from the SP leadership on that score: on the contrary, it expects the party to move further to the right to “show everyone that they can have government responsibility”.6
So, while the IS opposition to parliamentarism is commendable, it displays the same kind of movementism that we see in the SWP mother ship - and, of course, if you want “real opposition”, you know what to do: join the IS, of course!
Socialist Alternative, the sister organisation of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, which has only a few dozen members, is more uncritical. In an August 23 piece titled ‘Towards a thunderous victory for the SP!’, it called for “the biggest possible result” for the SP in the elections.7 It also urged readers to join that party and become active within it. Apparently the SP leadership is doing a fine job, since no call is made by Socialist Alternative for a leftwing opposition within the party. The piece ends by predicting that the SP will probably remain in opposition for now, but by the next elections there could be an SP majority government able to carry out a socialist programme!
In a later piece, two days before the elections, the same writer is a lot more down to earth and even makes some tentative criticisms of the SP programme. If the SP would fully commit to nationalising the banks and “large parts of the economy” we would soon be ushering in socialism (of a kind that uncannily resembles the post-war welfare state.8 ‘Transitional demands’ no doubt, comrades ...
The Mandelite group, Socialist Alternative Politics, also no bigger than a few dozen members and more commonly known by its journal, Grenzeloos (No borders), argued in its commentary that “despite the hangover from the elections, the SP stands on solid ground. If they keep up their opposition towards neoliberal policies, there is huge potential. Not for government participation in the short run, but for a strong movement against current policies”. This movement then, in the mind of the SAP comrades, will provide the basis for a “fundamentally different policy”, which the SP is ready to play its part in constructing.9 Yes, of course, comrades.
Lastly, Doorbraak (Breakthrough) calls in its commentary on the elections for no illusions in the SP (but expect worse from all the other parties), and for the building of “extra-parliamentary opposition from the bottom up” - code for doing your own thing locally wherever you are active.10 Commendable for its lack of illusions, but totally insufficient nevertheless.
During the whole campaign, the position of the VVD as leader of the rightwing pole was never questioned. I believe the reason for this is more than just the weakness of the other parties (mainly PVV and CDA) and the fact that the previous coalition was implementing an outright VVD agenda. The main reason why the VVD was successful was that it stuck to political slogans - as opposed to, for example, the SP, whose election posters just carried the slogan “Now SP”, sometimes alongside a photo of Roemer.
This immediately raises the question of programme. The current SP leadership is set on a parliamentary road and as such stands on a programme that is ‘realistic’. What is needed is a communist opposition within the SP that fights for a totally different programme - one that aims for the revolutionary transformation of society and in opposition to all capitalist policies (not just neoliberal ones). This is a first, seemingly obvious, conclusion that no left group has arrived at.
Maybe this is because there is an added difficulty in the way of forming such an opposition within the SP. One thing the party has retained from its Maoist past is a top-down, bureaucratic structure. Any opposition would therefore have to focus on the democratic right to speak out openly. This in itself is a political fight, and a fight worth taking up, given the position the party holds in the workers’ movement. Many trade union activists, for example, are aligned to the SP.
But none of this is enough. Because left currents cannot organise openly in the SP without facing the risk of expulsion, the far left (tiny as it is!) has to overcome its weak, splintered state and come together within a single organisation that could make an impact - within the SP and the working class itself. This is a second obvious conclusion that we never hear from any of the groups.
This implies the same political fight for democracy - most of the grouplets are in organisational terms simply a smaller version of the bureaucratic perversion seen throughout the international workers’ movement. The Dutch left is in that regard little different from its British counterparts. Only if we win the right to openly disagree can we hope to make progress in the struggle for principled unity.
To sum up: the changes in the Dutch political landscape are hardly going to improve the lives of working people and the SP is not going magically conjure up the opposition that is necessary. The far left therefore needs a two-pronged strategy: one that is based on building a left opposition within the SP and, in order to do so effectively, uniting on the basis of an international programme for communism.
Such a strategy would stand a chance of overcoming the false dichotomy between automatically voting for the SP on the one hand and focusing on ‘extra-parliamentary action’ on the other. It could start to pose a positive alternative: a party-movement that is independent of the state and other classes, internationalist, democratic and committed to a fight for a democratic workers’ Europe.
1. Weekly Worker May 23 2002.