Dutch elections: the left

The Dutch elections are on 15th of March, and in the current international political climate they could take on an importance that goes well beyond our national parliament. Pundits and commentators might (ab)use the results to make predictions on the upcoming French and German elections (which will take place in April/May and September, respectively). So let’s take a look at the current situation. Last week we looked at the right; today we’ll look at the left.

As I said before, the left is at an almost-historical low in the polls — at the time of writing it’s at 54 seats combined — but I expect it to gain a few seats before the elections. The main reason why the left is in such a bad shape is not voters moving to the right, but left-wing voters abstaining entirely because they don’t like any of their choices.

The four big parties

Let’s go over the four big parties quickly, starting on the rightmost wing.

D66 has been steadily moving to the centre for years now. The electoral calculus is clear: suppose moderate right-wing voters get tired of the hard-right policies of the VVD or the hard-right talk of the CDA, then they might want to escape to a more moderate party: D66. At the time of writing this strategy doesn’t really appear to work, but D66 does not seem to be in the mood to tack left. As a result, it becomes less and less interesting for vacillating left-wing voters.

The PvdA would be the natural habitat for those voters, except that it has just cooperated with right-wing VVD for close to five years, and although the VVD+PvdA government has had quite a few successes, these did not come in the social-economic sector that’s so important to low-education, low-paid voters who form the historical backers of the PvdA. Although the party changed its leader from Samsom to Asscher, this does not appear to make much of an impression on the electorate so far — likely because Asscher was Rutte’s right-hand man for the last five years and is fundamentally implicated in the government that’s now coming to an end.

A logical second choice for disappointed PvdA voters would be hard-left SP, but that party has its share of problems, too. Essentially, party leader Roemer is at the end of his tether. He did not manage to convince anyone with his left-wing opposition, and the SP’s profile is rather bleak these days. Besides, they’re anti-European, and although that may not matter to lower-class voters, it puts off middle-class voters who otherwise feel some sympathy with their economic programme. Uniquely among non-government parties, the SP is currently slated to lose a few seats in the polls.

That leaves GL, under its young and potentially charismatic new leader Klaver, who clearly models himself on Justin Trudeau. Now GL is doing fine in the polls (+10 seats), but it would have to do a whole lot better if it were to match Klaver’s half-boastful, half-strategic remark that he wants to become the next prime minister. Nonetheless, the very fact that GL does not have any serious problems is an asset right now. On the other hand, it has historically been the party of middle-class left-wingers, and hasn’t done a whole lot for the common man. Such cultural factors are hard to turn around in the Dutch system.

The prime-minister race

Speaking of the prime ministership; the left badly needs a candidate. Last week we saw that Rutte has challenged Wilders for the honour of being the right’s prime-ministerial candidate. Although this dynamic usually requires a left-winger to serve as bogeyman for the right (“vote VVD to keep Klaver out!”), it might be that Rutte is aiming for a fight between him and Wilders (“vote VVD to keep Wilders out!”). That would be something new, and I’m not sure if it would convince left-wing voters — although Rutte could certainly pick up a few seats from the CDA in this fashion.

But anyway, the left needs a candidate as well. The field has contracted to two: Asscher and Klaver. Roemer is too damaged and the SP doing too badly; D66’s Pechtold is likely too centrist for the job. All in all Klaver has better cards than Asscher right now because of Asscher being tainted by the outgoing government, but that does not mean he’s a shoo-in.

While all large parties generally try to initiate a prime-minister race, with their party leader in the starring role, there does not need to be such a race. In fact, when we look at the elections of this century only 2003 and 2012 had a genuine prime-minister race — and after the 2012 elections the two candidates, VVD leader Rutte and PvdA leader Samsom, promptly formed a coalition, which kind-of invalidated the whole concept of a race.

So while Klaver and Rutte might be willing to go head-to-head, it’s also possible that the entire race will be cancelled and we’ll go into regular, race-less elections.

The small fry

And then we have the small fry. Currently there are no less than three small left-wing parties, two of which split off from the PvdA during this parliament, and the remaining one splitting of from one of the other two.

In general, one expect a right-wing small party to be a chaotic mess, since most of those are only personal vehicles for their leaders (see also Wilders), but don’t have a party organisation to fall back on and vet other candidates.

In general, a left-wing small party does come from an existing organisation that has worked for years in order to get itself into parliament — the SP and animal-rights party PvdD are recent examples.

This time around, though, the left-wing small parties are every bit as bad as the right-wing ones. Let’s go through the list.

In 2014 two PvdA MPs of Turkish descent, Kuzu and Öztürk, left the PvdA and went on as a group; as such things are called in Dutch parliament. (By the way, a group can also be a single MP, but in this case there were two.) They persevered and founded their own political party, DENK (Think).

Meanwhile it has become clear there might be some interest in what they have to offer: representation for non-white Dutch. Historically, each ethnic group that entered Dutch society had a distinct preference for one, usually left-wing, party, with blacks from the former colonies going for PvdA, Moroccans more to GL, and Turks to both. A party of their own would make sense in the Dutch representative system, though.

So that was the plan initially, and in order to extend their reach beyond Turkish Dutch the two founders recruited black TV personality Sylvana Simons, which all in all was a good move. However, a few months back Simons quit the party — according to her because the leadership didn’t support her enough when she was threatened by right-wing trolls, but possibly also because of clashing egos — always a danger in small, badly organised parties.

She founded her own party, Artikel 1 (Article 1 of the Dutch constitution is about equality before the law), and also plans to run in the elections. Thus, theoretically speaking, the non-white vote that’s willing to go for their own parties is now split in a Turkish/Moroccan part and a black part. On the whole, the first group is larger, and potentially more willing to vote for their own people, than the second.

DENK has one or two seats in most, though not all, polls, while Artikel 1 hasn’t shown up yet.

The other party that hasn’t shown up yet is Nieuwe Wegen (New Ways), founded by Jacques Monasch, again a PvdA MP who split off from the main trunk of the party, taking his seat with him. This party aims for left-wing economic policies combined with a moderate anti-immigration stand. As to how NW distinguishes itself from the SP (or, in a way, Wilders), is an open question. The likely answer is that it doesn’t and won’t get any seats in parliament.

All in all these parties will have a limited effect on Dutch politics. I see DENK just barely making it into parliament, but the other two will fail, just like most of the small right-wing parties will fail. They might cost the left one or two seats, though, by spreading out votes across too many parties.

Anyway, now you know how the left is holding up (or not) these days. It does not seem that it can seriously combat the right in the upcoming elections — unless GL’s Klaver makes a splash in the debates.

<— The populists in the Netherlands | Non-white Dutch poll —>

This is the political blog of Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist, consultant, and trainer, in Amsterdam. It’s a hobby blog where he follows Dutch politics for the benefit of those twelve foreigners that are interested in such matters, as well as his Dutch readers.

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