Sunday, November 26, 2006

Dutch voters divided but not chaotic

The story: I wrote the following analysis for a newspaper, which turned it into something I could never write... hence, I felt like putting the original up my blog.

The results of Dutch Parliamentary elections of last Wednesday were interpreted as rather chaotic, even by experienced politicians like Finance Minister Gerrit Zalm of the Liberal Party. Although the formation process of coalition will not be smooth, the results do not necessarily indicate a chaotic message from the electorate. There were certain indicators pointing in this direction even before the elections. More importantly, there are some clear instructions that the Dutch electorate (albeit divided) gave to the next four years of Dutch politics.

Simply put, the results were a clear victory for the Socialist Party (SP) that almost tripled its seats in the 150-member parliament, while three other small parties received considerable support: the centre-left conservative ChristenUnie (from 3 to 6 seats), populist PVV (9 seats in the first elections they attended), and the novice animal-rights party PvdD (2 seats in their first elections). If the values and norms were the most important issues of the elections as the PM Balkenende, the leader of the biggest party CDA (Christian Democrats) has put, the results were not a surprise. All the winning parties are based on strong ethical stances –on whichever side of the spectrum they may be. Another common characteristic of these parties was their small but congenial components. The mass parties, on the other hand, particularly the Labour Party (PvdA) which showed signs of a much less coherent internal structure and disagreements among the cliques within the party, have lost votes. In either case the shift was from the centre to the both sides of the left-right spectrum.

Traditionally, Dutch political parties can be understood on a basis of left-right and conservative-progressive spectrum. While the electorate seems to have shifted from the right to the left, they also shifted towards more conservative parties, including the Socialist Party with its careful selection of mainly domestic issues. This may as well be regarded as another reason for the SP to succeed, as the major concern of the electorate has been domestic politics. While questioning the Labour and Liberals leaders on their own grounds, SP spurred the votes of the urban poor, as well as the electorate unsatisfied with the Labour that makes up 24% of SP’s votes. Neo-liberal policies of the last few years were obviously not further supported.

Throughout the pre-electoral debates, issues of foreign policy, Turkey’s accession into EU, or EU politics in general were downplayed. Despite a last minute leak of alleged torture incidents by army officials in Iraq, the wars in the Middle East were hardly ever mentioned. Either of the coalition possibilities however, will affect the EU integration (particularly that of Turkey) negatively. While the SP is pro-Turkey’s entrance, they are very reluctant on further integration, particularly on the basis of protection of Dutch workers, CU is against Turkish integration on the basis that Christian values are an integral part of European identity. In the 2005 referendum on the European Constitution the SP was the only left-wing party in parliament to oppose the European constitution. Most winners of the election were against the European Constitution as well.

Another issue that was not high on the agenda was that of immigration. While the PVV, a one-theme party of strong anti-immigration measures has won some 9 seats, in the post-election debates all possible coalition partners to CDA made it clear that they would not join any coalition with them. On the same debate, the word "Muslim" was not mentioned even once. The VVD, that promotes the principle of non-discrimination rather than the exercise of religion, and hard measures on issues of immigration has lost 6 of their 28 seats in the former parliament, and the luxury of being the second biggest party. The government announced plans to ban wearing the burqa and face veil in public, right before the elections without any major controversy. The news were not on the first pages of the newspapers, nor the issues of integration and immigration were a main issue in election preferences for more than 4% of the voters according to NIPO’s opinion polls. The policies regarding immigration are likely to remain strong (against the thousands of immigrants already in the legal process), and based on integration of the mainly Muslim groups from Turkey and Morocco, a shift from the progressive, tolerant, multiculturalist attitude that has declined since the murder of Pim Fortuyn 9-days before the 2003 elections. Fortuyn based his politics on the Dutch identity and suggested a strong stance for integration of Muslim communities, which caused a shift in most parties’ discourse on the issue.

The bargaining process has already started, yet to distil a government from these election results might be difficult for PM Balkenende, but this is the case in most central European countries. In the Netherlands, however, the issues are neither that of immigration nor of EU integration. The focus of the Dutch voters is homeland, which might as well bring about a less ambitious role for the country in international political arena.

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