Elections and rising instability in the Netherlands

Hans Gerd Öfinger interviewed Zowi Milanovi, editor of www.marxisten.nl, about tomorrow's general elections in the Netherlands.

HG: There have been reports about an improvement in the Dutch economy. What is the economic background of the Dutch elections, the position of Dutch capitalism, and the situation of the working class?

ZM: After many years of crisis and worsening social indicators, there are some signs of relative improvement. Unemployment has gone down, for example. Consumption has gone up and the property prices are going up. However, this recovery is not felt equally by all layers of the population. The growth of job vacancies consists overwhelmingly of so-called 'flexible jobs' and people have seen their rents gone up.

There are never any serious analyses about the nature of this recovery by politicians or economics. We are expected not to talk about this, as that would be “negative” talk while we need “positive thoughts” to keep the recovery running. The recovery is presented as a fact and we should all turn the page now and forget about the effects of the austerity packages of the last years.

The truth is that this 'grand recovery' is based on a few factors and the Rutte government had nothing to do with it. The Netherlands increased its exports to 80% of GDP and has been running a trade surplus of about 10% in the last few years, something the IMF has been worried about. This was possible because of the relatively low value of the Euro in comparison to the productivity of Dutch capitalism. In case the Netherlands would still have its own currency, this currency's value would have risen in the last couple of years. One could say that the Netherlands has had its small recovery on the backs of the southern European countries.

As for the housing prices, there have been attempts to re-inflate the housing bubble. In the historical period before 2008, the rise of house ownership in combination with rising prices meant that people from the middle class and better paid layers of the working class could get ahead by getting a (subsidised) mortgage. The illusions were sown that everyone could get ahead 'through hard work'. Now they are trying to re-inflate the bubble through various measures. One of these has been tax-free money transfers from parents to children for housing purposes, in order to transfer the fat of the old generation to the much skinnier younger generation. However, the housing market has mostly been stimulated through vicious attacks on social housing and tenants in general. People who 'are living too cheap' have been attacked through measures to restrict social housing and raise price levels, while many social housing has been sold off. People are being forced into getting a mortgage. This is the reality of the so-called recovery, it has been achieved on the back of working people.

This model will not  work in the long run. While there have been attempts to stimulate the housing market, on the other hand there has been a worrying trend of casualisation of labour, the so-called 'flex work' with short contracts on a low number of hours (even zero-hours). The Netherlands now is the country with the second highest percentage of flexible labour contracts in Europe, after Spain. Of all the newly created jobs in 2016, 41% were flexible agency jobs. This excludes the 'regular' flex contracts and the growing number of unwanted self-employed workers. Since 2003 the total number of flex workers and self-employed workers has gone up with 65%. A growing number of people are combining multiple jobs, something which in the past was seen as 'being a thing in the crazy USA, but not here in the Netherlands of course.'

Already many economists are worried that the casualisation will lead to future problems, as these workers will receive less training from the companies and will not be able to get mortgages in the future. Here we see the internal contradictions within Dutch capitalism which will limit the scope of the current recovery. Also the extremely high level of exports to GDP means that the country will be very vulnerable to shocks on the world market. The Brexit and the election of Donald Trump have already led to worries in ruling circles, as have the unsolved problems in Southern Europe.

HG: Netherlands was founding member of the EEC. How do the masses view the EU nowadays?

ZM: There has been a much more negative view about the EU in recent years, although this goes back to the introduction of the Euro currency, which meant a higher cost of living for many. The is EU seen as an arrogant institution which imposed unpopular policies on the Dutch people. On the other hand, there is a lot of knowledge that leaving the EU would not be a solution on its own, because of the interdependence of Dutch capitalism with the EU. The majority of its exports go to other EU countries. The Brexit-referendum and its aftermath have made it clear that a 'Nexit' is not an easy solution for problems that Dutch working people have.

The criticism of the EU is mostly coming from nationalist right wingers these days. They combine frustration with the EU-institutions with racism and xenophobia, whether it's the 'lazy' Southern Europeans getting a bailout (money which in fact goes to mostly northern European banks) or the 'job-stealing' Eastern Europeans. The refugee influx in 2015 was used for a hysterical scare campaign by the far-right PVV, calling for the return of border controls and blaming the EU for its 'open borders' (completely ignoring  the walls of Fortress Europe).

There is a lot of confusion within the left about this theme. The liberal left praises the 'values of peace and democracy' of the EU, completely ignoring the fact that the EU is an extended common market, a capitalist project in the interest of the big companies and banks. Just ask the Greek people about the love and brotherhood of the European institutions.

From the Socialist Party however we see another face of the left, that of combining left-reformism with chauvinist elements. The SP wants to end free movement of labour, in order to protect 'our own workers', and wants a referendum on abolishing the European Commission. This is a confused demand, as one country cannot abolish the European Commission and the EU without the Commission would not have its character fundamentally changed. Instead of this confused pandering to chauvinism, we need a clear socialist-internationalist alternative.

HG: Opinion polls indicate a certain fragmentation in the political landscape and erosion of traditional parties. How did this come about? Who are the main candidates now?

ZM: There have always been many parties, made possible by the system of proportional representation without electoral threshold. However, this time there is no party in the polls which will obtains more than 20% of the vote, and that's a sign of fragmentation and erosion indeed. In the past the three biggest parties (CDA, PvdA, VVD) always had a big majority of the seats together. Two-thirds of the Dutch voters are so-called 'floating voters' who only decide last-minute for whom to vote.

The christian-democratic CDA has seen a long term decline over the last decades, with its traditional base declining through the disappearance of the peasantry and the urbanisation. This was the traditional centre party where the stability of Dutch capitalism was based on. This party would either be in a coalition with the right-wing  VVD or with the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA). The latter is also in decline after many years of betrayals and the inability to even defend the gains of the past.

Still of course there are a few main parties. The two biggest in the polls are prime minister Rutte's right-wing liberal VVD and Geert Wilders' right-wing populist PVV, both hovering around 15%. These are followed by the christian-democratic CDA and the liberal D66, both around 12%. Then there are the leftwing parties GroenLinks (Green Left) and SP (both around 10%) and the PvdA at a miserable 8%.

HG: Dutch Social Democracy, PvdA, used to be very strong and seems to have lost a lot. Why is that?

ZM: In the campaign for the last general elections in 2012, the PvdA pursued a tactic of presenting itself as a 'reasonable' and 'experienced' alternative for the SP, which was then second in the polls. Supported by the media and due to some mistakes of the SP, the PvdA managed to take over the position of the SP. This was only possible on the most left-wing programme in many years.

However, the day after the elections the PvdA turned 180 degrees and declared that a broad coalition with its main opponent, the VVD, was necessary in the national interest. They formed the current austerity government, responsible for many cuts and a disastrous 'decentralisation' of the healthcare, where many tasks were taken over by local governments without the necessary funding.

This time PvdA presented another relatively left-wing programme and suddenly opposed the VVD policies. Their message was 'the cuts of the last years were necessary, now the crisis is over so this time we will really implement our programme'. For this, they held a sham leadership election, where power was transferred from Diederik Samsom to Lodewijk Asscher, two party leaders who agreed on everything. Other candidates were excluded through bureaucratic measures. Asscher, who was vice-prime minister, now was presented as a new fresh leader! Jeroen Dijsselbloem, internationally known as the president of the Eurogroup who had a collision with the first Syriza government in Greece, now speaks about the need to fight tax evasion by multinationals. As Minister of Finance, he himself was responsible for facilitating tax deals with foreign multinationals. These examples just show how extremely farcical this party is. Almost nobody trusts this party. The PvdA is at a historic low in the polls.

This is not restricted to the Netherlands. Everywhere in Europe we see this decline of the social democracy. Greece (PASOK), Spain (PSOE), France (PS). The main reason is that in the current conditions of capitalist crisis they cannot even defend the gains of the past, let alone fight for real reforms. Whether in coalition, as in the Netherlands, or in majority government (France), the social-democrats in power are in a big crisis.

HG: Activists in the left and labour movement all over Europe fear that an election victory of Wilders and his PVV will encourage the extreme right wing parties everywhere. What is the position of PVV? Is the PVV a fascist party? Is it comparable to the AfD, FN, Vlaams Belang, UKIP, FPÖ and others?

ZM: The PVV is an extremely reactionary right-wing populist party, with the particular feature that it is a one-man party where Geert Wilders decides everything. It wants to ban the Koran, islamic schools and mosques, while closing the border for all refugees. Fascist elements come to Wilders' rallies, and also have been strengthened after Wilders called for 'civilian resistance' against the construction of new asylum centres, when many fascist groups crawled out of their holes and organised themselves.

However, the PVV is not a fascist party in itself. It does not have an organised mass base intent on smashing the workers movement, like the fascist movements in the past. In that sense it is comparable to UKIP, Front National and AfD. Of course, that does not mean the PVV should not be underestimated. The other 'respectable' parties are taking over its rhetoric in a light version, by which they normalise the racism and muslim hatred of Geert Wilders. Most clearly this was expressed in a recent open letter by Mark Rutte to the Dutch people, where he called on those 'who don't like Dutch values' to 'act normal' or otherwise leave the country. Rutte later stated this was not aimed at immigrants, but we all know better.

The original is always better than the copy. That's why many years of other parties copying Wilders' rhetoric have not led to the disappearance of the PVV. It has only led to a further radicalisation of Wilders' right-wing nationalism. His infamous speech calling for less Moroccans, and his ties with Vlaams Belang, Front National and Lega Nord are the proof of that.

HG: Over the last few decades there has been an up and down of different extreme right wing parties in the Netherlands. Where is the PVV going?

ZM: There have indeed been ups and downs, which led the opponents of the far right to believe that they will disappear on their own if they are ignored, or if they are opposed in parliament. Since 2002 though there has been the presence of far right populism in parliament, mainly as a result of a discontent with the social democracy. When these parties rule or support the government (as Wilders did in 2010) their popularity tend to go down. When they are in opposition and there is a broad government coalition, they can blame 'the left' and also the center-right for not being hard enough, and in current conditions their popularity can grow. However, another factor is the presence or absence of a strong left-wing opposition party.

HG: Some years ago the Socialist Party had a spectacular growth. This seems to have come to an end. Why is that and why has GroenLinks eclipsed the SP?

ZM: The SP experienced a big growth from 2002 to 2007. At the 2006 general elections it won about 17% of the seats in parliament. It's membership grew from 27,000 to 50,000. The party expected to be part of a coalition government. This was refused by the christian-democrats. Since then there have been attempts to water down the programme and become more 'mature'. At the local level the party has collaborated with rightwing parties in the executive councils.

At the 2012 elections there was a comeback. There was a right-wing austerity government which leaned on support of the PVV. As this party was unmasked as a hypocritical partner of the austerity government, the SP could present itself as the left-wing alternative to austerity. However, the PvdA was trumped up as the 'reasonable alternative'.

The party has since then tried to improve their image to become a bit more 'rebellious' again. They have a new chairman, a former trade union organiser, and started a nationwide campaign for a national healthcare system (to replace the current public-private system). The youth organisation has a more socialist image than before.

Still the overall image (whether justified or not) by many working people and youth, is that it is a party for the poor, old and sick. The party has a chauvinist position on the EU and on Eastern European migrant workers, whom they want to keep out through regulations. Also its support for laws extending the powers of the intelligence services and its strong support for the police unions, mean that many immigrant youth will not likely vote for them.

GroenLinks (Green Left) is now led by a new young leader, Jesse Klaver, who has been completely hyped up. This man has copied a lot of rhetoric from North American liberal heroes Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau. At this stage he is supported by many intellectual middle class ex-PvdA voters, but also by many new young voters, mostly students. He might get more seats than the SP and become the biggest party on the 'left'.

Only then the challenge will start for Klaver. He clearly wants to rule in a broad coalition and hopes the new period of growth may give him some room for reforms. The presence of rightwing coalition partners and the uncertainty of the world economy may quickly end this honeymoon period.

HG: What are the most likely options after the elections?

ZM: There are basically two main options. If the VVD en PVV will be far bigger than the rest, then a right-wing coalition between them and some smaller right parties could be an option, even though Mark Rutte stated he doesn't want to rule with the PVV. We have seen before in 2012 how the VVD fought PvdA, in order to turn 180 degrees and govern with them in a broad coalition. They can always find a reason in the 'national interest', stating that "we have to have a government coalition in order not to disturb the economic recovery". However, this is not the preferred coalition for the ruling class. It would see a lot of protests from the beginning from anti-racist groups. Also the complete lack of any 'social partners' would force the unions into more mobilisations.

The preferred option for them would be a broad coalition of 4 or 5 parties. This would for example be VVD, CDA, D66 and GroenLinks. Such a broad coalition can appear to be 'inclusive'. However, the current government is also a broad coalition, which had to lean on the support on many other parties because of its minority in the Senate. For Wilders, such a government is the ideal gift to present himself again as the 'martyr' who is excluded by the others. Theoretically the SP could also gain, but they have to present themselves as a socialist alternative which is ready to fight, and stop trying to present itself as a 'worthy coalition partner'.

In any case, both scenarios mean instability. The elections here will be followed by elections in France and Germany. Whatever the outcome, one thing is clear. Europe has entered an era of instability and uncertainty, with these elections just being one small part of a bigger chain of events.