‘Migrant-led’ political parties are on the rise in the Netherlands—a natural reaction to extreme anti-migration populism of the past decade. Insights into the local elections held on 21 March 2018 across the country show us how the rise of parties led by migrants (so-called allochtonen) can diversify the Dutch political landscape in a positive way.
New political parties established by Dutch people with a migration background have been quite successful in the recent municipal council elections in The Netherlands. Especially DENK, a new party formed by people with a migration background (largely from Turkish and Moroccan descent) managed to attract unexpected levels of support. This is quite a contrast with four years ago, when the Freedom Party (PVV) of anti-Islam activist Geert Wilders secured a landslide win in two Dutch cities (The Hague and Almere).
This year, Wilders’s party decided to compete in thirty cities—the ones in which his support was largest during last year’s parliamentary elections. However, his performance was rather disappointing. Wilders and his party lost most of the seats it had acquired four years ago to local parties that the PVV had competed with. These local parties won almost a third of the municipal votes—an increase of ten per cent compared to four years ago. EU nationals and non-EU citizens who lived in the Netherlands for more than five years were also allowed to vote in the local elections. This feature of the Dutch electoral system makes the municipalities an important battleground of political participation.
‘Migrant’ parties: countering anti-migration populism
The boom of the new ‘migrant’ political parties—next to DENK also NIDA, the Islam Democrats, Platform Amsterdam, Ubuntu Connected Front, BIJ1 and the Party for Unity—can be understood as a natural reaction to extreme anti-migration populism of the past decade. This anti-migration sentiment has been echoed by several mainstream political parties, desperately trying to capture the Wilders constituency. That is why the Christian Democrats rallied for the reintroduction of the national anthem in primary school classes, and the liberal governing party VVD reconfirmed its support for Zwarte Piet, a popular (though racist) traditional celebration for young children which is increasingly challenged by a variety of Dutch citizens.
Not surprisingly, the new political party DENK attracted its support especially in a dozen cities that are known for their elevated migrant (and especially Turkish and Moroccan) population such as Schiedam, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and Utrecht. DENK launched a targeted and effective election campaign, largely focusing on young voters via social media. There are also concerns, as DENK leaders have repeatedly voiced their support to the Erdogan government, and some even labelled Turkish parliamentarians rejecting Erdogan’s policies as ‘traitors’. But that seems to be a sideline, as DENK mobilised support particularly from those migrants that feel alienated by mainstream political parties who tell them to ‘better integrate into Dutch society’.
These voters with a migration background feel offended not only because second or third generation migrants were actually born here, but also because they experience discrimination on the labour and the housing market (even if they feel totally ‘integrated’). DENK (as well as the other migrant-linked parties) offer those ‘new Dutch citizens’ a platform that was absent in most mainstream parties, which often moved (for electoral reasons) closer to the xenophobic and Islamophobic position of Geert Wilders.
Not surprisingly, there is also tension amongst migrants competing for Dutch council seats. Sylvana Simons, originally part of DENK, left after a conflict over strategic positioning. She is from Surinamese descent, with a more diverse Amsterdam constituency, and decided to run with her own party BIJ1 (“Together”). This new party also includes anti-Zwarte Piet activists from the African and Caribbean community who are generally not very well represented at the political level. The Ubuntu Connected Forum and Platform Amsterdam with largely African and Afro-Caribbean candidates, for example, did not get any council seats in the big cities. Still, Ugbaad Killincci, a young Somali woman, who had arrived as a baby to the eastern city of Emmen, was elected after racist action against her triggered a national campaign in the Labour Party (PvDA) rallying to elect her with preferential votes.
Pre-election debates at ISSThe ISS was also involved in this debate on migration and its links to the Dutch elections by organising a public debate in which several local council candidates with a migration background participated. Half a dozen ‘migrant candidates’ brought their transnational linkages to the ISS in order to share their views and motivations to participate in these elections. Coming from Nigeria, Burundi, Suriname, as well as Turkey, they discussed how diversity played a role in the Dutch local elections. Key themes during the debate included perspectives on immigration and integration, economy and jobs, as well as public services.
However, identity issues such as racism, gender and discrimination also emerged as critical topics in the debate. The candidates highlighted the value of their multiple and multi-layered identities, their civic commitment, and the need to leverage these linkages for the benefit of the Netherlands and countries of origin. These multiple identities reflect a demographic shift in the Netherlands, especially the increased multicultural feature of municipalities.
Politically, some structural shifts are happening with the ‘migrant vote’. It is about time, many migrants argue, since the majority of the population in the three biggest cities in the Netherlands now has a migration background. Still, we see migrant interests underrepresented and migrant delegates remaining the exception: migrant parties and migrant candidates overall achieved less than 8 percent of the municipal vote.
It is yet to be seen whether the newly established migrant-linked parties will gain more electoral support in the major cities; the increased competition amongst them for the same migrant constituencies may have a divisive effect, leading actually to reducing their seats in municipalities and councils. Notwithstanding, the tendency towards more diversity in Dutch politics is in motion if we look at the Chair of the National Parliament plus the mayors of Rotterdam and Arnhem being from a Moroccan background. Even though similar positions are not yet filled by persons with a Turkish, African, Asian or Caribbean background, this seems to be only a matter of time. The successes of the new migrant-linked political parties certainly are a promising step in that direction.