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Are we in a crisis? Learning from Trump’s lawfare endgame

Is there a crisis in the United States, as many commentators would make us believe? If so, what is the nature of that crisis? It has become very fashionable to speak of innumerable ‘crises’ while most of these events can be traced to something far deeper, namely lawfare. It is becoming increasingly clear that the use of lawfare has been Trump’s game plan from the beginning until the end of his administration; accordingly, he is now seeking to bypass the will of the voters and entrench himself in the White House.

Marchers with signs at the March on Washington, 1963. Source: Library of Congress Archive https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2013648849/.

Americans, and indeed people around the world, have tried to make sense of the US election, in particular its incomprehensible system of tallying Electoral College votes, as well as a plethora of legal challenges to elections across the country. A quick scan of the latest news items from around the world reveal claims of a range of nebulous ‘crises’ in the US: a political crisis, a crisis of democracy, a constitutional and potentially post-election crisis, a crisis of bourgeois democracy, and even a crisis of the American Dream.

But do any of these depictions of ‘crisis’ really help us understand what has been happening? And why is it that the courts rather than the voter (or Electoral College for that matter) seem to end up deciding an election, as Trump hoped would happen for this presidential election when he complained about electoral fraud?

Simplistic descriptions of ‘crises’ without a deeper examination of the root causes won’t help us understand what is transpiring. As my ISS colleague Karim Knio has consistently argued, we should not waste a good crisis. Accordingly, he insists that one must resist the simplistic tendency to speak of a crisis IN or a crisis OF something, but rather should seek to understand the potential of such events to trigger political change.

To be sure, this is not to dismiss the importance of potentially calamitous events – whether they are political, economic, ecological, sociological or indeed medical (the COVID-19 pandemic comes to mind). However, the crucial thing is to learn from how such events have been (mis)managed to get to the underlying causes. In other words, explaining the pedagogy of crisis management is much more important than the crisis itself.

Amidst a cacophony of voices, each seeking to provide their own explanation of the ‘crisis’ in the US, and even how to solve it, very few speak of the underlying reasons why the US is in such a mess. This is a far more fundamental matter, including the insidious ways in which law is instrumentalised to suppress basic democratic and legal values, and indeed to suppress people as well. I argue that the illegitimate misuse of the legal system in the US through the use of lawfare is underpinning many of these ‘crises’.

It was evident from the very beginning of the Trump administration that it would use lawfare to accomplish its goals. Lawfare is about instrumentalising law to suppress people and to undermine rule of law values. This use of law assumes “delegitimising and oppressive forms, justifying retrogressive policies and even reinforcing the hegemonic actions of states”.

Throughout the four years of the Trump administration, there has been an expansive mis-use of the law through lawfare to accomplish what would otherwise have been impossible through legitimate legal procedures. All branches of government have been affected by it. In the legislature, following an impeachment by the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, Trump’s strong alliance with key members of the Republican-held Senate ensured that, through lawfare, he would be duly acquitted in a sham trial that failed to call any witnesses. Trump also waged lawfare in the judiciary: he appointed two Justices with right-wing political views – Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Comey Barrett – to the US Supreme Court, the latter one week before the presidential election. But most of all, Trump made extensive use of lawfare by way of executive orders, from the so-called ‘Muslim ban’ to the separation of migrant children from their families after being detained at the US border.

Trump was hardly the first president to make use of Executive Orders—Bush and Obama made extensive use of them as well. Indeed, Trump capitalised on this expansion of executive power. Notwithstanding their shaky legality (they were frequently overturned after being challenged in court), it seems that this form of lawfare has mainly been intended as a source of distraction, for example from the administration’s ‘dangerously incompetent’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic or the Republican party’s systematic unravelling of the US social safety net.

However, Trump arguably took lawfare to a whole new level in the context of the 2020 Election. In the run-up to the election and even as Biden was proclaimed victorious, lawfare has been Trump’s principal strategy, his endgame for attempting to win re-election in 2020 by way of voter suppression, which another commentator refers to as a ‘crisis’ in itself.

Voter suppression through lawfare has a long history that is rooted in the country’s racist past. This has involved the systematic use of lawfare at municipal and state levels, and has taken various specific forms. A common form has been to require voters to produce specific IDs, based on a spurious claim (i.e. little to no evidence) that voter fraud was rampant. A second form of lawfare has been to exclude those with a previous felony conviction (i.e. record of having committed a serious crime). A further form of lawfare has been to re-design voter districts so that Republicans have a greater chance of winning elections according to a particular set of demographics. Much of these lawfare aimed at voter suppression were pushed by a private organisation known as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

In the weeks prior to election day on 3 November, Trump and his associates issued frequent warnings of the potential for voter fraud, citing mail-in ballots as a major cause. As often accompanies lawfare, there was little to no evidence for making such claims.

By 8 November, it became increasingly clear that Biden would win the US Presidential election by more than 4 million votes. By then he had already collected well more than the 270 electoral votes needed to win and was on track to secure more than 300 in total. Accordingly, every single major US news network—including the Trump-friendly FOX news— projected by 8 November that Biden would win the election.

The response of Trump and his associates was not to concede, but to step up their lawfare game by launching multiple lawsuits in different states, albeit lacking the support of large law firms that are required to mount such complex litigation. As with many other previous lawfare actions, this action was also led by former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, again alleging ‘fraud’, though still based on little to no evidence. Nevertheless, these false allegations have been bolstered by Trump’s allies in the Senate—in particular Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz—all aimed at questioning the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, or potentially at maintaining the Republican voter base.

This all reveals the importance of learning how lawfare has been used to undermine fundamental pillars of governance. Despite the claims of pundits that the US is facing innumerable, unspecified crises, the biggest crisis facing the US is much deeper and fundamental. It is a crisis in how lawfare is systematically used to undermine the very fundaments of liberal democracy and, most recently (and visibly), the integrity of the electoral system.

Learning from how Trump and his associates have misused the law through their disingenuous campaign of lawfare is also key to understanding why challenging the election is not as important as Trump’s lawyers make it out to be. Lawfare is used to exclude legitimate voters and to foster a deep and growing polarisation that will make it all the more possible for right-wing Republican candidates—even those with no qualifications or experience other than starring in a reality TV programme or running loss-making businesses—to seek presidential office in future.

In other words, Trump’s endgame of lawfare is a crude strategy for undermining basic principles of governance in order to secure re-election. While this strategy of polarisation is proving unlikely to work for this election, it may well secure a Republican victory in future.

About the author:


Jeff Handmaker


Jeff Handmaker is a senior researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) and focuses on legal mobilisation.


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Land and property rights in South Africa: questions of justice by Sanele Sibanda

How we approach contestations over land and property rights in South Africa says a lot about what we believe a just post-colonial constitutional order to be. While politicians and political parties have exploited issues around land and property rights to garner votes, particularly in the 2019 election, what has become apparent from ensuing public and scholarly debates is that there is emerging a collective sense of an impending national existential crisis. At the heart of this crisis lies the thorny question: where to from here for South Africa’s constitutional democracy?

How the ground shifted in the 2019 general election

In early May 2019, South Africa held elections that were dubbed by South African Independent Electoral Commission head, Sy Mamabolo, as the “most complex, highly contested and logistically demanding”  since the commencement of the democratic era in 1994. The highly contested election saw the governing party, the African National Congress (ANC) and the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA) retain their overall positions as South Africa’s biggest political parties, while simultaneously losing a substantial portion of the national vote. These losses can be contrasted, first, with the continuing electoral rise of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), whose policy mainstay has been the promotion of a radical programme of economic freedom, focusing particularly on land redistribution. Secondly, there was the unexpected (re)emergence of the Freedom Front Plus, whose policies reflect a retrogressive, right-leaning, white separatist agenda that opposes race-based affirmative action in any form and the redistribution of land.

While the respective decline and rise in popularity of the four parties (who between them garnered over 90% of the national vote) is notable, these shifts in numbers are far from the most interesting aspect of the election. Rather, it was how the issue of land or, more broadly, the question of property rights dominated public discourses as well as the different parties’ electoral campaigns and manifestos. Nearly, all the parties took up clear positions around the question of whether or not section 25 of the Constitution (the property clause) should be amended. Unsurprisingly, this question generated much cause for hope and anxiety, depending on which side of the economic or class divide one falls; it hardly requires mention that in South Africa there is a close correlation between race and class, and indeed class often operates as a proxy for race.

Land and Property Rights Debates

The real significance of the heated debates around land and property rights is that they clearly indicate a collective sense of an impending national existential crisis. At the heart of this crisis lies the thorny question where to from here for South Africa’s constitutional democracy? In other words, whilst much of the contestation was rooted in the EFF’s original proposal – often dismissively dubbed as populist – for “land expropriation without compensation” to be realized by an amendment to the property clause, the questions raised are much more profound. Such as, what remains of the sense of possibility in the post-apartheid constitutional project in the eyes of those who, 25 years into democracy, continue to occupy the margins reserved for those historically disenfranchised and dispossessed? To be precise, at their core these questions reflect an increasing sense of marginality, exclusion and growing hopelessness experienced by multitudes of Black South Africans who continue to be asked to temper their expectations towards attaining the ‘improve[d] quality of life of all citizens’ promised to them by what many commenters regularly remind us is the best constitution in the world.

There have been calls for the land and property debate to be less populist and emotive, but more rational and pragmatic by many commentators, who also often call for a defense of the Constitution. These calls also often oppose the very idea of an amendment to the property clause. It is notable how in making these calls for level heads or pragmatism notions of justice (in light of centuries of colonial-apartheid dispossession) remain largely absent in the arguments and reasoning advanced. Instead, these calls justify persevering with the current governmental land policies (with the caveat that they be subject to faster, better, less corrupt implementation). This silence on the justice question is quite telling, as the question of who retained land and property rights acquired originally through violent racist policies, and who was conferred with a hope to acquire land and property in a post-apartheid future speaks fundamentally to what we understand justice to be, or more precisely, what type of justice has been or can be achieved under the 1996 South African Constitution.

It is easy to dismiss questions of what type of justice or whose justice as being overly philosophical, esoteric or ethereal even. However, what cannot be dismissed with equal ease is that South Africa’s fomenting crisis has profound implications for what the citizenry understand or believe to be the constitution’s vision of justice and its potential to undo unearned material and social privilege and change South Africa’s historically racialised property relations. What I am suggesting here is that those engaging in the debate about land and property rights should stop talking past each other as is the case currently. There should be less of a focus on abstract questions of the constitutionality or necessity of an amendment, instead what is needed is an increased emphasis on setting out, examining and elaborating upon the justice claims of the different positions advanced. Elaborating on the justice claims would entail requiring being transparent in naming or expounding on the ethical, moral, philosophical and/or historical justifications that ground positions advanced, as well declaring whose or which interests their positions advance.

Competing notions of justice

At this juncture, it is fair to ask what it would mean, in practical terms, to center the notion of justice in this debate. At the risk of over-simplification, I suggest that in public and academic discourses there are at least two identifiable streams of this debate. One stream (that I associate myself with) broadly speaking, advances a probing critique of the current constitutional paradigm and calls for a decisive change to the prevailing land and property relations achieved under the current dispensation which has left much of the land, property and wealth in the hands of white South Africans. Another stream defends the constitutional compromise that largely retained the status quo on land and property relations at 1994 whilst committing (at least textually in accordance with the constitutional property clause) to progressive, piecemeal redistribution and restitution of land; this stream tends to be simultaneously critical of government’s perceived failure to fulfill its constitutional mandate. To place justice at the center would be to require that both sides equally foreground their underlying justice claims, although in fairness it must be acknowledged that those calling for paradigmatic change generally do.

Earlier this year Time Magazine dubbed South Africa as “the world’s most unequal country”, this fact of a growing divide between the haves and the have-nots coupled with the increasing angst around land and property rights suggests an impending crisis is on the horizon. Continuation of the debate on current terms signals a failure to address the underlying justice questions of how this inequality was produced and has been sustained post 1994. To avoid the descent into a cataclysm, I suggest here that a first step must be to shift the grounds of debate away from political rhetoric, a focus on legalities and policy (over)analysis as this all too comfortably skirts the questions of justice implicit in really grappling with South Africa’s racially skewed wealth, land and property holdings.

Image Credit: Martin Heigan on Flickr

About the author:

IMG-20191030-WA0027Sanele Sibanda is a faculty member in the School of Law at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. He has been a visiting fellow at ISS, a participant in the joint Erasmus School of Law – ISS Project on Integrating Normative and Functional Approaches to the Rule of Law, and currently serves in the supervisory team of one of the candidates in a joint ISS-Wits PhD programme. Sibanda recently completed his PhD at University of the Witwatersrand entitled “Not Yet Uhuru” – The Usurpation of the Liberation Aspirations of South Africa’s Masses by a Commitment to Liberal Constitutional Democracy.



Elections in the DRC: Compromises, surprises and the ‘game of gambling’ by Delphin Ntanyoma

The results of the general elections recently held in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) after being delayed for two years show interesting developments. The opposition remained weak despite rallying together, and the Catholic Church came to play a pivotal role. This post explores the ‘gambling game’ through which these elections have been compromised by surprises. The far-fetched results of the presidential elections will unlikely contribute to the DRC’s long-term stability.

The recent elections held in the DRC were characterised by the high number of candidates running for vacant positions: 23 presidential candidates (of whom 21 finally contended for this position), and about 15,000 candidates vying for 500 seats in the national assembly. At the provincial level, more than 19,000 candidates competed for 780 seats.

But the debates and the media’s coverage of the elections that took place at the national and provincial levels  focused mostly on the presidential elections, as this is the center of Congolese politics and power struggles. Whoever controls this position will certainly have an upper hand. Based on the provisional results announced at the beginning of this year, Felix Tshisekedi Tshilombo, one of three contenders, has been declared the winner, beating Martin Fayulu Madidi and Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, a candidate of the ruling coalition (Front Commun pour le Congo). The latter is widely described as the ‘dauphin’ of departing president Joseph Kabila.

Kabila’s departure

Many observers were surprised by Joseph Kabila’s decision not to run for a third term, even though the DRC’s Constitution does not allow for the extension of presidential rule beyond a second term. Many thought and predicted that Kabila would maneuver to extend his period of rule. Though he had not publicly announced this intent, he made many moves that hinted at attempts to contend again.

But in early November last year, nearly two years after Kabila’s second term ended in December 2016, he expressed willingness to cede power by nominating his ‘heir’, Ramazani Shadary. Few had predicted this scenario. Understanding this choice of Kabila of not running for the third term, one however cannot rule out the pressure and leverage of the international community but also that of regional organisations such as SADC and the African Union.

The persisting weakness of the opposition

While uncertainties were surfacing around elections, the Congolese opposition parties had been struggling to establish a strong scheme through which they could work together, with all of them rallying behind Fayulu as a united candidate. However, Felix Tshisekedi and Vital Kamerhe decided to break away from the agreement, opening a breach to a rift within these opposition political parties. As this withdrawal expressed once again weaknesses within the Congolese opposition, observers could predict a breach through which the ruling coalition could easily influence the electoral process, hence declaring their candidate as the winner.

Since the Peace agreement in DRC in 2002, there seems to be a bunch of surprises and compromises in Congolese politics. Nonetheless, the announcement of Felix Tshisekedi as the new president is seemingly the compromising ‘gambling game’ for the short-term future.

The Catholic Church as saving grace

The delayed electoral process was saved through the intense involvement of the Catholic Church in December 2016, when the elections were originally intended to take place. Via the Congo National Episcopal Conference (Conférence Episcopale Nationale du Congo: CENCO), the failure to organise elections had been ameliorated by reaching an agreement led by Catholic Bishops in Kinshasa. The Catholic Church managed to bring on board opposition parties that had dismissed previous consultations. Moreover, the agreement helped to set up an agreed electoral calendar and eased tensions. Though widely interpreted, the agreement advocated finding a compromise over ‘political prisoners’ and those under prosecution for likely politically oriented motives.

The Catholic Church is among the few institutions and organisations whose actions in the DRC are influential, with the Church wielding power countrywide. The Church is among the few providers of public services in a fragile state setting. It deployed approximately 40,000 observers during the recent elections. And being largely embedded in local communities, it has much leverage and influence to gather information from the polling vote.

Problems with the voting procedure

The voting procedure also reveals the struggle for true representation of the Congolese people. Since 2011, the general election would be won by achieving a simple majority instead of an absolute majority. Among the top three, the announced elected president won 7,051,013 votes (38.57%), while the second on the list, Martin Fayulu, obtained 6,366,732 votes (34.83%)—a difference of 1.7%. Moreover, the participation rate in this election has been estimated to be around 47.56%, meaning that 52.44% of the population did not vote. Winning this presidential election by such a small margin facilitates a discussion on how excluded territories could have been a ‘game changer’.

A ‘gambling game’

Remarkable about the Congolese elections is the role of the church. While the government blocked all international involvement and did not allow observers, the churches have been the binding factor that enabled the election and organised the observers. It shows the relative strength of civil society in the country that is characterised by a severely fragile state. Even though this has probably helped to avert large-scale violent conflict (at least until now), it has not resulted in an uncontested outcome. Instead, one could suspect that the announced results are a ‘gambling game’ that characterises the elite class in the DRC. In most cases, these types of ‘gambling games’ end up with elites making deals to access large shares of the pie to the detriment of its citizens. Notwithstanding all the challenges presented above, these developments could lead to more violence in the future.

Image Credit: MONUSCO Photos/R56A9909


About the author:

Delphin Ntanyoma is a PhD Researcher in Conflict Economics at the ISS. On his blog www.easterncongotribune.com, he writes about developments in the Eastern DRC.






‘EleNão!’ ‘NotHim!’ Women’s resistance to ‘the Brazilian Donald Trump’ by Marina Graciolli de Paiva

The run-up to the Brazilian presidential election to be held on 7 October reminds spectators of the coming to power of Donald Trump two years ago. Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing politician, is running for the election, and while many are cheering him on, others are watching aghast as he heads the polls. In this article, Marina Graciolli de Paiva looks at the implications of the election of Bolsonaro and shows how the Brazilian women’s resistance movement is countering the rise of a fascist government.

Leading in the polls

The upcoming Brazilian presidential election is interesting for several reasons. Being in prison, former Brazilian President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva cannot run as a presidential candidate. When Fernando Haddad was appointed as his replacement, he proved less popular than expected, and now polls show that nationally, only 16% of Brazilians support him as candidate. Alarmingly, far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro now leads the polls at 28%. Seven other presidential candidates share the remaining remaining 56% of votes in the polls.

Bolsonaro, a former army captain, spent 27 unproductive years in the Brazilian Congress before becoming Social Liberal Party presidential candidate in 2018. Known as the ‘Brazilian Donald Trump’, his political career has been fuelled by social media. Even centrists are worried by far-right sentiments in the country. Although Bolsonaro is unlikely to beat a left-wing or WP (Workers’ Party—Partido dos Trabalhadores) candidate in the second round of Presidential elections, many middle- and upper-class voters, who blame Lula and the WP for Brazil’s problems, could ‘carry Bolsonaro in their arms’. The situation remains worrying as his coming to power threatens to shake the liberal foundations laid in the country over the past years, when the politician questions democratic rules, encourages violence, denies the legitimacy of his opponents and shows a willingness to restrict civil liberties.

Why worry about Bolsonaro?

Bolsonaro is an evangelical Catholic, known for his offensive and violent remarks towards almost everyone. His targets include descendants of African slaves, indigenous people, women, and LGBTQI groups, as well as the poor. The Federal Senate (2018) estimates that a woman is raped every 11 minutes in Brazil. Yet Bolsonaro says he will reverse femicide legislation if he is elected. He claims he would rather his son died than be a homosexual. To television cameras, he told one congresswoman that he would never rape her, as she was far too ugly (NY Times, 2018).

As a consequence of such shocking statements, Bolsonaro is often called a fascist. German International Relations teacher at PUC-Rio, Kai Michael Kenkel is worried:

When you live with well-developed antennae for the rebirth of intolerance and fascism, the alarm could not sound more clear than in the case of this man and his supporters. Just replace LGBT, black and woman for “Jew”, and we are clearly in 1933… concentration camps also began with words.

Not happy to confine his comments only to homosexuals, racial minorities and women, Bolsonaro defends forced sterilisation of the poor. He favours the death penalty, and like Trump, he hardly believes that public education or social protection can help economic growth. Instead, he favours deregulation and letting large capital run the show. There is much more: he has mocked torture victims, wants to end land rights for indigenous Brazilians, and claims Afro-Brazilians are ‘lazy’.

Why is this happening?

 What is causing this rise of the Brazilian far-right? Bolsonaro’s main supporters are men coming from a higher social class and schooled backgrounds. Since 2014, another factor has been Lava-Jato (carwash). This became the biggest anti-corruption drive in Brazilian history. Yet it exclusively targets the Workers Party of the Left. As a result, right-wing parties have emerged and now exploit Brazilians’ growing distrust of state institutions. The right promises radical and ‘moral’ solutions for the growing economic and political crisis in the country. From a fight against corruption, this has become a crusade for reaction.

Bolsonaro’s supporters demand changes; they share a few broad ideals: fighting corruption, supporting the military, shrinking government, deregulation, Christian ‘family values’, the right to bear arms; hatred of the left, especially the Workers Party. Among Bolsonaro’s voters, 87% have stated that they place greater trust in the military than in democratic government. They oppose sex education in schools, women and minority rights. Unfortunately, such ideas emerge among the least empowered and represented as well as among powerful elites.

#EleNão #NotHim

Brazilians and friends living in different part of the Netherlands got together at the Hofplaats in The Hague last Saturday, 29th of September, to manifest their repudiation against the presidential candidate, Jair Bolsonaro. Photo: Marina Graciolli de Paiva

Interestingly, Bolsonaro is ‘rejected by 49% of female voters’. Only 17%’ of women support him. Not surprisingly, therefore, the resistance movement against Bolsonaro’s ‘fascist’ views started with Brazilian women. On August 2018, the resistance movement was launched, and now includes other social groups (LGBTQI), also artists, journalists, academics and more. The movement uses the popular social media hashtag #EleNão (#nothim). Resisting his explosive mix of machismo, misogyny, racism, homophobia and anti-poor rhetoric, and other types of discrimination, the movement brings opposition by refusing to use the politician’s name. Instead they refer only to ‘Ele’ (Him).

A Facebook group ‘Women united against Bolsonaro’ reached more than 3 million followers in a month. The main idea is to oppose the candidate and to raise voices against intolerance and anti-democracy movements. The group, as its administrators’ rules, is only for posts against the candidate and NOT to post in favour of any other politician. This movement of resistance is a significant step in the growing polarisation. People from the movement have constantly mentioned that this is not only a matter of politics, but it is a matter of moral values and rights. On 29 September 2018 the movement called for marches all over Brazil and internationally, in defence of democracy, tolerance and against the candidate, it gathered thousands of people across the country in more than 30 cities. Although polls show ‘him’ in the lead, studies suggest that the poorest people in Brazil are often the last to decide how to vote. Since the majority of the country’s poorest people are black women, this could be grounds for optimism. Poor women in general will determine the fate of Bolsonaro.

As social justice advocate, and part of the women’s movement, I am cognisant thereof that words by themselves are not just rhetoric, but also action, both for ‘him’ and in the hands of people that resist ‘him’, is necessary. We should be alarmed. In my opinion, to vote for Bolsonaro is to vote for impoverishing Brazil and violating the rights of those frustrated and impoverished Brazilians who may ironically be tempted to vote for ‘him’. The hard-earned democratic political system of Brazil is certainly under threat, as the women’s movement understands.

With all the differences, we have chosen freedom from oppression. We have chosen respect for prejudice. We have chosen equality against racism. We have chosen the diversity of many against the hegemony of one. We have chosen peace against violence’ (Eliane Brum, 2018).

Profile picture copyAbout the author: 

Marina Graciolli de Paiva, former Wim Deetman Scholarship holder, is a Brazilian activist in peace and justice. A graduate of the ISS, she specialised in Conflict and Peace Studies. After graduating Marina worked for GPPAC (Global Partnership for Prevention of Armed Conflict) in knowledge-sharing, peace-building and conflict prevention. In Brazil, Marina worked in CEEB, a small NGO providing educational opportunities for disadvantaged children.

Diversity in the Dutch local elections by Kees Biekart and Antony Otieno Ong’ayo

‘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

hsp logoThe 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.

Screen Shot 2018-04-05 at 17.48.52

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’.

Platform AmsterdamThese 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.UCF logo_3

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.

The political party Bij1 (‘Together’) focuses on a ‘new politics’ of economic justice and radical equality.

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.

Debate held at ISS with representatives of ‘migrant-led’ parties before the Dutch local elections on 21 March 2018.

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.

Main photo: Picture from DENK’s political manifesto stating that ‘people should be able to be proud of their heritage’.

csm_166bed604f68c0443160dc5f1905fa7a-kees-biekart_6d238c8725.jpgAbout the authors:

Kees Biekart is Associate Professor in Political Sociology at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam.

antony.pngAntony Otieno Ong’ayo is a political scientist by training and currently a Postdoctoral Researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University in The Hague. he focuses on diaspora transnational practices, civic driven change, political remittances and transformations in the countries of destination and origin