The left-wing parties won the recent local council elections convincingly in the Netherlands. To be more accurate: the parties in power have all declined while the opposition has gained votes.
Let us first look at the figures. The PvdA (the social-democrats) won 1988 seats, 670 more than in 2002. The SP (a socialist party to the left of the PvdA) doubled its seats to 333. GroenLinks (a green party with an important ex-communist component) lost a tiny margin of votes and stands at 401 seats. The national ruling parties, CDA (Christian-Democrats), VVD (Liberals) and D66 (so-called “left-wing Liberals”) all declined. The CDA lost almost 300 out of 2050 seats, the VVD 128 out of 1374 and D66 more than 80 out of 227. The local “Leefbaar” parties (radical right wing) are also declining. Leefbaar-Utrecht went from 14 to 3 seats, Leefbaar-Hilversum from 9 to 5. Rotterdam, formerly the bulwark of the radical right, is the only city where the radical right has not been totally swept away. Losing three seats, the List Fortuyn (named after the murdered right-wing demagogue Pim Fortuyn) ended Election Day with 14 seats. However, the main thing that has to be emphasised is that the PvdA emerged as the biggest party in Rotterdam with 18 seats.
At the exit polls voters were asked which party they would have chosen if there had been elections for the national parliament as well. If that had been the case, the ruling coalition would have lost their majority, or 16 out of 77 seats. The left-wing opposition would have gained a majority of 76 seats. 46% of the people see Wouter Bos (the PvdA chairman) as the most suitable candidate for becoming the next prime minister, while current prime minister Balkenende (CDA) only gets support from 23% of the voters. Voters were also asked to explain their vote: most voters indicated they wanted to send a signal to the national government. 76% of the SP voters gave this as a reason, along with 70% of the PvdA voters and 45% of GroenLinks. On this basis, if there were national elections the SP and PvdA would gain even more votes, while the List Fortuyn would end up with 0 seats.
Slightly more voters turned out compared to the historically low point of 2002: 59% against 58%. Still, this is a lot less than for example the turnout in the mid-eighties. The biggest party in the Netherlands is actually the party of abstention: 41% of the electorate didn’t vote. Since the mid-eighties there has been a general tendency of declining interest in politics, simply because ordinary people feel that politics – bourgeois politics –offers no real future.
Below the surface
However, these facts do not explain the success of the Left. From the figures we can make some observations. Many people wanted to “send a signal to the government”, i.e. to punish them for their right-wing policies. After the rise of Pim Fortuyn and the polarisation around the “immigration issue”, there was an attempt to sharply shift society towards the right. The government used these issues as an excuse to pursue an anti-social policy. The attention was shifted towards people from a different culture, with a different skin colour, the so-called cause of the social-economic problems.
While this debate was raging, the government proceeded to attack the social security services. Poverty is on the rise. This “Dutch experience” goes to prove once again which side the right-wing parties are really on in the class struggle, and it is certainly not the working class! The recent swing towards the left took place because people saw in their daily lives what a right-wing government meant. People saw they weren’t better off – in fact, they are worse off. According to the polls, the main reasons for these voting patterns were problems of employment (62%), poverty (59%) and traffic congestion (57%). After three years of right-wing-liberal government the key issue was no longer security as in 2003 (this issue did not even figure in the top five), but socio-economic problems.
Research also shows more immigrants went to the polls compared to four years ago. According to a study of the Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies of the University of Amsterdam, a huge 80% of the non-European immigrants cast their vote for the PvdA. In the big cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam this figure rose to 85%. They have reacted against the Right which pictures them as the scapegoat for all the problems, while they themselves are facing a decline in living standards. This shows that the lack of interest in politics is not absolute or permanent, at least not when people feel their vote matters and can change things.
The tragedy, however, is that the PvdA has adopted some right-wing ideas. This can clearly be seen in the similarities between the programmes of the PvdA and the List Fortuyn in Rotterdam, something the press has had a field day on. The attempt to win the “discontented electorate” by bending to the right has proved to be a failure. The experience of Flanders (Belgium) with the Vlaams Belang party (formerly Vlaams Blok) demonstrates that the radical right cannot be defeated by taking over their programme or parts of it. The radical right cannot be fought with a right-wing programme. Only a clear and bold left alternative can win the mass of ordinary people.
One must not forget there has been a strong political awakening of the labour unions since 2004. They are under constant attacks by the government to “improve the competitive position” of the Netherlands. This left victory is a reflection of the social struggles and the massive labour union actions since 2004. The results also show that the PvdA is still the biggest party of the working class. The SP and GroenLinks remain small in comparison, although the SP certainly can weigh disproportionately on the political debate because of their radical rhetoric and rank and file campaigns.
A left-wing government?
The PvdA, GroenLinks and the SP could have easily called for a vote of no confidence in parliament and thrown the government out. The SP even hinted at this possibility by stating – correctly – that these elections are a punishment for the policies of the national government. SP leader Marijnissen believes the cabinet should draw conclusions from this result: “All government parties have lost, it’s a cabinet without voters.” A homogeneous left government would be possible, if only the left-wing parties would campaign for it.
That, unfortunately, is not in the thinking of the left leaders. If this really had been the strategy of the PvdA, it would have happened already. Their leadership mostly wants to show they are “good statesmen” and that they will play the game by the rules of the bourgeois parliament. If this means that the population has to suffer under a right-wing government until 2007 – although they have democratically voted against it – then so be it for these “statesmen” of the PvdA. Wouter Bos and the PvdA are refusing the mandate issued to them by the people. They know very well that if they throw out the ruling parties, this would have a radicalising and stirring effect on the rank and file. This would cause the militant and unionised base to propose radical measures and thus weigh heavily on the new government. In turn, this would lead the PvdA into a confrontation with the right wing and the bosses, something they want to avoid at all costs. They prefer to govern with some sort of new “Poldermodel” (Third Way) like in the 1990s.
So the left parties will wait until they win the national elections of 2007 (which they most likely will win). As stated before, a majority of left-wing parties is a very concrete possibility. But because in the present situation such a government would be the result of the social struggles that have taken place since 2004, it would receive no blank cheque. Indeed, the workers would write a great deal of demands on this cheque. An electoral victory of the reformists would be qualitatively different from the 1990s.
A victory of the Left is something which we and many workers would support. However, the problem is that today the programmes of all the social-democratic parties are reformist in nature. This means they believe in a “third way”, “capitalism with a human face” or “a correction of capitalism”, and they no longer fight against capitalism itself. This means they have distanced themselves from their socialist roots. It is precisely this bending to the right on the part of the labour leaders that has led every time to yet another comeback of the right-wing parties. They refuse to confront the bosses and to press for the radical changes the workers want. Retaining capitalism while making radical changes for the working class isn’t possible. Reformist parties again and again fail to seize the opportunity to capitalize on their successes, thus paving the way for a recovery of the bosses and the right wing.
Should they win in 2007, the PvdA leadership will start to manoeuvre. In fact, we can already see this now in the way they are behaving on the local councils, where they are wary of establishing too many coalitions with the SP, since this would only push them closer to forming a homogenous left-wing coalition in 2007. This means the SP will have to take the initiative and raise the demand for a left united front, not just to achieve “left unity”, but on the basis of clear demands centred around the needs of the working class. The SP could start this by launching a campaign in the neighbourhoods on the most important needs of the people in working class areas.
The proposition of a government coalition based on such demands would pose a dilemma for the PvdA leadership, but it would win a great deal of sympathy from the rank and file. Just the call for a united front in itself would probably cause the SP to gain votes! If the PvdA leadership were to refuse this would clearly show they do not really want a fundamental change of society. This means the SP could present itself as the real left alternative. Should the PvdA accept, so much the better. The leadership would probably not have the will to really execute this common programme, but the rank and file would. This would give a push to the struggle for social change from below.
All this would be possible if the SP had a genuinely socialist revolutionary stance. However, there could also be other, opportunist reasons, for the SP to wish to participate in the government: to be in government, pure and simple. If that becomes their criteria then the programme becomes secondary and getting into government becomes the sole aim and principles would be buried for the sake of taking part in government.
Alas, we can see this opportunistic tendency already developing within the SP. In the city of Nijmegen, where they are part of the local government, they have been carrying out the cuts demanded by the government. They have even agreed to privatise the municipal bus company. With these kinds of policies the SP will just become one more reformist party together with the GroenLinks and PvdA, and they will be presented with a bill for this in future elections. This underlines the fact that the key question for the Left and the workers’ movement is not a new party, but the struggle for a genuine socialist programme!
In fact, we received an interesting letter from a Dutch reader of our site, in response to an article we wrote in Dutch just after the elections. It is worth quoting from it at length.
“I agree with your perspective that the SP after the next elections should strive for a left united front (although this is the last thing the PvdA wants…) on the basis of a list of clear demands. The interesting thing is that this is exactly what the SP leadership is proposing at this moment. They have a list of 25 points on the basis of which they want to form a government with the PvdA and GroenLinks. The problem is that the leadership is not doing this as we would like it. In fact, the thing they want the most is to be in government and the leadership is now pressing for this in the formation of local governments.
“It is interesting to see how different party branches and core groups handle this question of ‘participation in government’ very differently. The more active and politicised the branch is, the better their position is. For example, the SP core group of East Amsterdam, where I live, has presented a clear list of demands to the PvdA and has demanded public negotiations. In this way they are carrying out what you propose in your article. As it happens, the PvdA does not agree with the demands and is obliged to say this openly. As a result, the SP has not formed part of the local government (so they are not held co-responsible for the right-wing policies) but it is still the winner.
“Alas, at the same time we see that the SP does not have such a firm position everywhere, because in many towns they are joining the local government, not only with the PvdA but also with parties like the CDA (Christian Democrats) and D66 (Liberals). And the leadership presents this participation in local government as victories.
“These developments demonstrate very clearly two things. Firstly, the SP leadership wants to govern. Secondly, inside the SP, under the pressure of the active members, this question has not been decided on and the discussion is not yet closed. On this point we can keep on discussing with SP members and it gives a possibility to intervene.”
This comment shows that in the coming period the rank and file of the SP will have to face up to the opportunism of the leadership. Therefore it is important to organise them around clear Marxist ideas and methods. Otherwise they could fall prey to confusion, demoralisation and ultra-left tendencies.
We congratulate the Left for its electoral victory. It forms part of the rise of the Left throughout the world, most importantly in Latin America. Only a few years ago, many lamented about the shift towards the right in the Netherlands, with the blitzkrieg of the demagogue Pim Fortuyn and the victory of the right wing under Balkenende. Even then we pointed out that this shift towards the right was not as absolute as it seemed.
One has to look below the surface. Stark polarisation to the left and the right is inherent in the historic period we live in today: the period of the crisis of world capitalism. People are looking for a way out, which makes this a very volatile period. In the end however, only one side can triumph: the Left or the Right, the workers or the capitalists. Only by adopting the programme and tactics of Marxism can a left victory be consolidated and lead to socialism. Therefore, become active, organise yourself on the basis of a Marxist programme and join the International Marxist Tendency!
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- Netherlands: Reawakening of the Dutch working class by Erik Demeester (October 4, 2004)
- The Netherlands: Set on a stormy course by Erik Demeester (May 22, 2002)