Who is Right?

Article published on Nov. 22, 2006
From the magazine
Article published on Nov. 22, 2006
Newcomers are lining up on the right, while voters steer to the left

There was a time when Dutch politics was both boring and reliable. But those days have long gone. This month’s snap elections follow a second fall of government in four years of political shambles. Bitter resignations, intrigue, death threats, and even murder have scarred the country’s exemplary reputation. But with the first opinion polls rolling in, voters seem set to reinstate some of that long-lost stability by turning their backs on a bickering right.

Shaking up the establishment

It all began with the spectacular rise of Pim Fortuyn in the run up to the 2002 parliamentary elections. An extravagant populist, he openly questioned multiculturalism and criticised Islam; a subject that had long been shied away from for fear of being labelled racist. His assassination (by an animal rights activist) a week before polling day helped catapult his party of mostly amateur politicians to second place with a whopping 26 seats.

Without its charismatic leader however, List Pim Fortuyn (LPF) soon started to disintegrate, sparking the fall of government not half a year later. The party continued to exist, but had lost its credibility and has since been withering away. The latest polls do not grant them a single seat.

The anti-immigration legacy lives on

Indeed many newly formed break-away fractions are competing to fill the so-called gap on the right. Among them are the Party for Freedom (headed by ex-Liberal parliamentarian Geert Wilders), One NL (jointly run by ex-LPF parliamentarian Joost Eerdmans and Liveable Rotterdam councillor Marco Pastors), and the Party for the Netherlands (with ex-LPF minister Hilbrand Nawijn as its leader). They are joined by names in the likes of New Right, Our Netherlands, and Forza! Netherlands. All are competing for the same Fortuyn-vote.

Other than breaking the taboo on delicate immigration issues, Mr. Fortuyn is now accredited with shaking up a long-established, self-reinforcing political elite. The ease with which he sprang unto the political stage reminded the country of its democratic nature, and has inspired many dissatisfied souls to have a go themselves.

Early September, the electoral council announced that they received no less than 74 registrations (24 of which actually complied with participation criteria), compared to 45 in the last two elections. Illustrative of this are the Party for the Animals, the Smokers Party, the Party for the Young, or the Party against Overpopulation. Other curiosities include 'All Are One', 'Don’t Vote', 'XyZyX 4U2', or the 'PNVD', better known as the ‘paedophile party’, whose legalisation earlier this year triggered a wave of consternation both at home and abroad.

Yet the stunt performed by Mr. Fortuyn four years ago is unlikely to recur. A similarly charismatic politician has yet to arise. Nor has anyone succeeded in persuading the many bickering one-man parties to combine forces. Moreover, established parties seem to have learned their lesson. All have toughened up on immigration, flooring the populist monopoly. Indeed, the subject has been debated over such an extent, that a certain immigration-fatigue is discernable. Contrary to the last two elections, more economically pressing matters dominate the agenda this year.

But most importantly, the Dutch just seem tired of the amateur politics embodied by the LPF-debacle; something the polls seem to confirm. Despite the many seats neo-Fortuyn fortune-hunters say they are sure of, no more than a few are to be divided among them. Most should not set their hopes on a single seat at all. And it is not just the LPF or its mimics who are being castigated by voters. The Liberal Party seem stuck at below-average, partly due to bitter internal leadership discord. Also striking is to see the practical obliteration of the Social Liberals, who are widely held responsible for the most recent fall of government.

Instead, voters are turning left. It is there that they expect to find the economic and political stability they seek. Local elections held in March of this year may have proven prophetic, when the Labour Party swept to victory, beating the Christian Democrats and Liberals, the two main components of the last two governments (though polls still slightly favour the Christian Democrats). If polls are anything to go by, it’s the Socialist Party that seems to gain the most from the chaos on the right. Traditionally an opposition loudmouth, they anticipate being in government for the first time.