25/10/2006 - Analysis
On 22nd November more than 12 million of Dutch will be called to ballot to renew the 150 members of the States General, the lower Chamber of Parliament. 26 political parties are running in these general elections, a figure equal to the record election held in 1994. Amongst them, 14 are presenting candidates in each of the 19 constituencies in the kingdom. These elections are being held early. Initially planned for 16th May 2007 the collapse of the government coalition led by Jan Peter Balkenende on 29th June and the formation of a minority government as a result convinced the leader of the Christian Democrat Appeal (CDA) to bring the election date forward.
The Political System
The States General, Parliament of the Netherlands, are bicameral. They comprise : a first chamber (Eerste Kamer), the Senate, which has 75 members elected every four years by indirect suffrage by the members of the kingdom's 12 provincial States; and the second chamber (Tweede Kamer), the States General whose 150 members are elected every four years by direct universal suffrage and integral proportional representation, an electoral method which fosters the existence and representation of a large number of political parties. Each political party that wishes to put candidates forward in the general elections must collate 30 declarations of support in each of the kingdom's 19 constituencies, i.e. a total of 570 signatures.
The present States General comprises nine political parties:
- The Christian Democrat Appeal (CDA), a centre-right party created in the 70's after the merger of three parties, the Popular Catholic Party (KVP), the Anti-Revolutionary Party (ARP) and the Historical Christian Union (CHU) in reaction to the secularisation of society. The CDA, led by Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende has 44 MPs;
- The Labour Party (PvdA), founded in 1946 and born of the union movement rallying the social democrats. It is the main opposition party led by Wouter Bos with 42 seats;
- The Popular Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), created in 1948, says it is inspired by Thorbecke, the father of the constitutional revision of the Netherlands in 1848 and is led by Mark Rutte. It is part of the government coalition led by Jan Peter Balkenende; it has 28 seats;
- The Socialist Party (SP), an extreme leftwing party led by Jan Marijnissen, has nine MPs;
- The Pim Fortuyn List (LPF), an extreme rightwing party created in 2002 by sociologist Pim Fortuyn who was assassinated on 6th May 2002 has 8 MPs;
- The Green Left (GL), an ecologist party that lies to the left of the political scale; it has 8 MPs;
- The Party of Democrats 66 (D66) which rallies the reforming centre-left liberals. It was a member of the government coalition since the last general elections on 22nd January 2003 until the end of June this year; D66 has 6 MPs;
- The Christian Union (CU), a party born of the merger in January 2000 of the Reformed Political Federation (RPF) and the Reformed Political Alliance (GPV), led by André Rouvoet, has 3 MPs;
- The Reformed Political Party (SGP) shares the orthodox protestant electorate with the CU (strict Calvinists) and has 2 MPs.
The Electoral Stakes
The murder of Pim Fortuyn on 6th May 2002 shook the Netherlands where the close relationship between the electorate and the political community is part of national tradition and whose political culture has always been based on debate and the quest for consensus. Since then the Netherlands has been experiencing political instability which is unusual in the kingdom. The Populist leader, Pim Fortuyn, denounced a type of immigration he believed to be excessive and dangerous; "the Netherlands are full" was his motto – fighting against "the islamisation of Dutch society"; this revealed the gulf between the elites and a great part of the population. Two years after Pim Fortuyn's death, film producer Theo van Gogh was stabbed in the street by a young Islamist on 2nd November 2004, for having spoken about the violence perpetrated against Muslim women. On several occasions over the last four years the population has expressed its discomfort with regard to the threats made against its model of society based on consensus, the gateway to tolerance. A symbol of their concern; for the first time since the 1950's the kingdom has experienced a wave of emigration towards countries such as Canada and Australia.
On 1st June 2005, the Dutch used the referendum on the draft treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe to send a signal to the political community. "The 'no' is a sign sent to politicians to say 'stop and listen'," maintained Maurice de Hond, director of the main polling institute. According to political analysts the 'no' (61.6% versus 38.4% for the 'yes', with a high participation rate of 63.4%) mainly expressed the Dutch refusal to see Turkey enter the Union and in a wider context, their fear of foreigners.
The Netherlands has a population of 1.6 million immigrants i.e. 10% of the total population (Central Statistics Office, 2004). Around half are described as 'non-Western', the three majority groups being Turks (around 194,000), Surinamese (around 187,000) and Moroccans (around 166, 000). "The Dutch 'no' is closely linked to a general withdrawal by the country on itself," stressed Richard Wouters, responsible for Europe within the Green Left. "The country feels threatened, lacks confidence and is withdrawing into its shell," added sociologist Paul Scheffer.
Over the last four years there have been no less than three governments and many ministers, MPs or political leaders have been forced to leave their posts for various reasons. The most recent resignations; the minister of Justice, Piet Hein Donner and Housing, Urban Development and Environment Minister, Sybilla Dekker, on 21st September last after the publication of a final report on the fire at the detention centre in Schipol-Amsterdam airport where 11 people died in October 2005. The inquiry concluded that the authorities had failed with regard to security. Fons Hertog the mayor of Haarlemmermeer, the town where the airport lies also resigned.
On 29th June last the government coalition resigned after the controversy provoked by Integration Minister, Rita Verdonk (VVD). Former prison director otherwise known as "Iron Rita" Rita Verdonk was both criticised by the opposition and Human Rights defence organisations for her policy towards immigration and asylum rights and appreciated by a majority of the Dutch (she was elected political personality of the year in December 2005). In May this year the MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali (VVD) of Somalian birth but naturalised Dutch, a friend of murdered film producer Theo van Gogh and scriptwriter of his film Submission dedicated to the life of women in Muslim societies said that she had lied about her true identity and her exile when she asked the Netherlands for political asylum. Following this Rita Verdonk decided to withdraw her Dutch nationality. At the end of June after many weeks of political pressure the minister finally changed her mind and said that Ayaan Hirsi Ali could remain Dutch. In the meantime the latter who dedicates a great part of her life to the fight to improve the condition of Muslim women and has lived under permanent police protection since the murder of Theo van Gogh (a note was found on his body threatening the Somalian MP with death), decided to leave the Netherlands to live in the USA. On 29th June the Democrat 66 Party launched a motion of censure against Rita Verdonk. This was not approved by the majority of MPs but the political party caused the collapse of the government coalition by withdrawing its support.
After years of often painful rigour for most of the population the Netherlands can now boast good economic health. The unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the EU and according to government forecasts the public deficit should lie at 48% of the GDP at the end of 2007 (265 billion euro), i.e. below the 50% allowed by the Stability and Growth Pact. During the traditional general policy speech on 19th September by Queen Beatrix the coalition government promised that austerity measures would come to an end in 2007, that there would be a drop in contributions for households and employers and that the GDP would grow by 3% next year with a budgetary excess of 0.2% of the GDP. "The number of jobs is increasing the economy is growing, a strong health and social system has been established, the number of benefit payments (unemployment and social assistance) are dropping. I have realised that all this has been possible thanks to the personal investment on the part of the citizens over the years of budgetary restrictions but I think better times are on their way. It has only happened once in the last forty years. The Netherlands are again in a lead position with decreasing public debt, a low inflation rate, a flexible labour market and an improved business climate. We are proud of the result we have achieved together," declared Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende on 19th September last. He also said he was confident about the general elections on 22nd November.
On 26th September the Netherlands featured once more on the list of the world's ten most competitive economies (moving from 11th to 9th place) established by the World Economic Forum in Genève, an independent organisation of leading managers from the private sector. According to Henk Volberda, professor at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam and a member of this organisation "the Netherlands particularly attracted the attention of the Forum due to the quality of their public organisations, their economic policy, their excellent infrastructures and growing investments in higher education."
Wouter Bos, leader of the Labour Party (PvdA), has had to acknowledge the work undertaken by the present government coalition. However he did point out that this result had arrived late in the day and that the division of wealth might be more equal, indicating that he was suggesting a programme, without challenging Jan Peter Balkenende's achievements, which was more socially oriented. He also acknowledged that if the general elections had taken place on the planned date of May 2007 the continued improvement in the socio-economic situation would have played in favour of the opposition.
Whilst the Pim Fortuyn List (LPF) had practically disappeared from the political arena in the last general elections on 22nd January 2003, winning just 5.7% of the vote (i.e. 11.3 points less than eight months previously), several parties are vying for its electorate. Former member of the Popular Party for Freedom and Democracy, Geert Wilders founded the Geert Wilders Group in September 2004 before creating the Party for Freedom (PvdV) in time for the elections on 22nd November. This party is suggesting the closure of the borders to non-Western immigration, the prohibition of dual nationality and the construction of mosques and Muslim schools within the next five years along with the obligation for immigrants living in the kingdom to sign an assimilation contract. Geert Wilders forecasts that "Muslim criminality will submerge the Netherlands and that intolerance and violent culture will affect the country to its very heart"; he speaks of an "Islamic tsunami".
For his part Marco Pastors, leader of Habitable Netherlands (LN) from Rotterdam, (30% of the vote during the local elections on 7th March 2006) founded Een NL (One Netherlands). He hopes to halt immigration and put an end to the political and social unrest that reigns across the country.
The Pim Fortuyn List still exists and will take part in the general elections under the name "Fortuyn" with Olag Stüger heading the list. "They are trying to play on the supposed discontent of the electorate which brought Pim Fortuyn to the fore. But Pim Fortuyn was a phenomenon in his own right and he did not have much competition," analyses political expert Linze Schaan, co-ordinator of the Centre for Local Democracy. "Pim Fortuyn made a dramatic entrance into the existing system. He was not only to the right of the political scale but he exploited the widespread political unrest. Marco Pastors will only have a chance of being successful if he does not close himself within a rightwing image," declares political science professor Ruud Koole. "Several parties have more or less the same approach to immigration," stresses Maurice de Hond adding "the election outcome will depend largely on the personality of the leaders of the two main parties, Jan Peter Balkenende for the Christian Democrats and Wouter Bos for the Social Democrats."
Finally the Party for Love, Liberty and Diversity (PNVD) known under as the Paedophile Party will not be able to take part in the general elections because it did not manage to find the necessary 570 declarations of support to feature amongst the candidates. This party which would like to reduce the age of sexual consent to twelve and legalise child pornography was the source of a number of negative reactions.
The Electoral Campaign
On the opposition benches the Labour Party (PvdA) presented its electoral programme at the start of September entitled, "Children First". It plans for free care for children under twelve three days per week, parental leave where70% of the minimum salary is paid for the six first months after the birth of a child and an increase of 10% of teachers' salary in the primary and secondary sectors. It plans to make savings of 12 billion euro over the next few years notably with regard to the civil service, a measure that has been criticised by the Federation of Trade Unions (FNV).
The Socialist Party programme (SP) is entitled "a Better Netherlands for the same price". It proposes an increase in the social minima of 10%, free public transport for children under 12 and people aged 65 and over, free care for children and the possibility for voters to dismiss the government and the right for workers' councils to approve the salaries of the managers of their companies. The party would like to invest 11 million euro in education, the fight against poverty and the healthcare system during the next government's term in office.
Finally the Green Left (GL) is asking for "a Greener, more social and more tolerant Netherlands." Focussed on employment, the party would like to increase unemployment benefits that would be limited to one year and to invest in education (1,500 euro per pupil) and in public transport (800 million euro).
For its part the government coalition, the Christian Democrat Appeal (CDA), hopes to continue its work "to transform the Welfare State into a society of participation." Its electoral manifesto is focussed on the middle classes and promotes individual responsibility and autonomy. The programme put forward by the Popular Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) is clearly liberal promoting a 3% decrease in income tax, the suppression of property tax and a decrease in inheritance tax and social contributions.
In its manifesto entitled "Sustainable together", the Christian Union (CU) is asking for an increase in family benefits, an indexation of retirement pensions based on salaries, the recruitment of 3000 additional policemen and the end of the enlargement of the EU after the entry of Croatia and Macedonia.
All political observers in the country are expecting a tightly run race. The Christian Democrat Appeal which suffered in the polls and the local elections (7th March) when all the government parties recorded a loss and where the Labour Party (PvdA) made a break through has managed to make a come back over the last few weeks in order to lie equal with the PvdA. At present the electoral campaign is centred on the confrontation between the present Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende and Labour leader, Wouter Bos. This summer the Prime Minister achieved his highest ever popularity level since he came to power in May 2002: 30% of the population said that it approved of his policies. Peter Kanne from TNS Nipo sees "a direct relationship between the increasing popularity of the Christian Democrat Appeal and the confidence of the Dutch in their economy."
The most recent poll undertaken by Interview-NSS for the TV programme NOVA, published on 23rd October provides the Christian Democrat Appeal with a slight lead declaring it would win 46 seats ahead of the Labour Party (PvdA) that is due to win 44 seats. The Popular Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) is due to come third with 26 seats, followed by the Socialist Party (SP) with 16 seats. Finally the Green Left (GL) would win 6 seats, the Christian Union (CU) 5, the Reformed Political Party (SGP), 3 and the Democrats 66 (D66) 2.
Reminder of the general election results on 22nd January 2003
Participation rate: 80%
Source Agence France Presse