The Netherlands' migrant parties

Representing the new Europeans

In a decade marked by significant shifts in the political landscape, Sundayʹs European elections could well prove an eye-opener. Massimiliano Sfregola assesses the chances of Dutch "new Europeans" to make an impact

In the run-up to the European elections, the international political debate has shifted to the Netherlands. There, the far-rightʹs rising star Thierry Baudet has declared his aspiration to lead the Dutch delegation to Brussels by striving for first place at the 26 May vote.

What is less under the spotlight are the effects of this heavy shift to the right on the once balanced and centre-oriented political scene in the Netherlands – and on Dutch society as a whole. The most apparent consequence is that minorities, non-western immigrants and their descendants have started to organise political parties to defend themselves against the rising tide of anti-migrant rhetoric, these days embraced by an increasing share of the population.

The most vocal of the new "migrantenpartijen" is Denk, which is running candidates in the European elections. Its declared aim is to become the first party devoted to the interests of "new Europeans" to ever gain seats in the European parliament. Like any first, this mission will be difficult for the party to achieve.

However, the absence of a threshold in the Dutch electoral system and promising recent polls – which have Denk neck-and-neck with "50plus", another small potential new entry – may see the party succeed in its dream of leading the charge for minority inclusion in the European parliament.

Yet how did we get to the point in which Dutch politics is so polarised that the parliament contains both the far-right anti-immigrant Forum voor Democratie (FvD) and a pro-migrant party like Denk?

Leaders of migrant party “Denk”: Tunahan Kuzu (right) and Selcuk Ozturk pose at the Binnenhof in The Hague, on 23 February 2017 (photo: Getty Images/AFP/B. Maat)
Anti-racist, multi-ethnic and anti-colonial: expelled from the Labour party, Tunahan Kuzu and Selcuk Ozturk founded their own party, naming it "Denk"– a word that means "think" in Dutch and "equal" in Turkish – to mark its roots in the migrant community. Their agenda is strongly left-leaning, outspoken against "white privilege" and institutionalised racism in the Netherlands

One fateful day

The beginning of the millennium saw the idyllic picture of a Scandinavian-style country of "compromise and tolerance" shatter overnight with the murder of Pim Fortuyn—an eccentric, openly gay, conservative politician, and declared enemy of a multi-ethnic society. At the time criticising multiculturalism was generally not accepted by Dutch mainstream society.

The death of Fortuyn, however, paved the way for the rise of the populist Geert Wilders and his personal war against Islam. But more generally it has boosted a gradual shift in the entire political spectrum towards more conservative and ethnocentric positions.

The Dutch Labour Party (Partij voor de Arbeid, PvdA) and the Socialist Party (Socialistische Partij, SP) were once favoured by migrant workers, in particular those with a Turkish or Moroccan background. In the last 10 years, however, both parties have turned their back on minorities.

To retain electoral support they have shifted significantly, leaving behind traditional internationalist solidarity for a more electorally convenient focus on native Dutch interests and embracing a less tolerant approach towards Islam.

Dutch Muslims abandoned by the left-leaning parties

In a country where 1 million out of a total of 18 million citizens are Muslim, this shift among the left-leaning parties has been perceived by non-western migrants and their descendants with a growing sense of distress. Just as the murders of Pim Fortuyn in 2002 and film director Theo van Gogh in 2003 are seen as turning points in a rising Islamophobia in the country, 2014 marked another critical juncture.

On 13 November of that year, the formal fracture of the Netherlandsʹ multi-ethnic society occurred when Tunahan Kuzu and Selcuk Ozturk two Labour MPs of Turkish background were expelled from the party.

The expulsion was the culmination of a fierce internal debate sparked by a report stating that 90% of young Dutch-Turkish supported IS. The expulsion (or resignations – neither the PvdA nor the Denk founders can agree who made the first step) of the two MPs was so explosive because it was not based on any particular political or policy disagreement, but simply on their minority identity.

The reportʹs findings – which were actively promoted by the Labour leader Lodewijk Asscher, back then minister of social affairs – turned out to be overstated and its credibility was called into question. Yet Asscher stood firm in his criticism of the apparent failure of integration and many saw this as clearly indicative of the partyʹs position, once the most "Muslim-friendly" in the country.

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