– “What is going on with you Dutch guys in the Netherlands?”
– “We have a hazard, that is to say, a hazard of contra-enlightened citizens in our country.”
– “Who are they?”
– “They are those people who prefer tone over debate, emotion over rationality, opinion over facts, security over freedom, and hominess over cosmopolitanism. They are the populist movement.
The above dialogue over the hazard of contra-enlightenment, albeit an imaginary one, it frames quite accurately the ethos in the public debate during the Dutch pre-election period.
The Contra-Enlightenment paradigm
In a column that appeared earlier in the NRC Handelsblad, essayist Bas Heijne referred to the adherents of populist leaders using a term he coined, that of the ‘contra-enlightening’. The people who, in his words, strike out against the liberal elites who bargain the Dutch values, and on ground of irrationality express their uneasiness and discontent. Online Platform Geen Stijl quickly responded, writing him off as ‘fantast’ and ‘charlatan’. In a top-down dominated ‘elites’ society, the Ordinary Man finally stood up and raised his voice. Not in the editorials of the main newspapers alone. Above all in the corners of Twitter, Facebook, and self-established blogs, where public opinion manifests itself. The essence of a new normality is placed on the forefront of the debate.
The orange envelop arrived one week ago on my Greek doormat in my old-Turkish neighborhood of this Thessaloniki, Greece. Together with 50.000 other Dutch citizens abroad our vote will be weighed in the counting. As an obedient citizen, I manually crossed the names and numbers. I took my favorite fountain pen, a blue lamy, bought a post stamp and wrote ‘The Hague’ at the back. A slight hesitation passed … there goes my vote, in what has been depicted as the litmus test, followed by France and Germany, of the state of democracy and political current in Europe. Maybe I should … have I read the program right? Would it make a difference? What is exactly at stake? And what are the dividing lines in our society?
Ahead of the March 15 elections, the Party for Freedom (PVV) tumbles down and up in the opinion polls. The Liberal Party (VVD) joins the fight for the top in the electoral battle. Both are commanding around 16% and 15% of the vote each, thus the poll matching of Tom Louwerse, that provides a weighted average including an error rate. With distance they are followed by the Liberal-Democrats (D66), the Socialist Party (SP) and the Green Party. When the election campaigns started, commentators have asked themselves who would become the ‘anti-Wilders’ figurehead. Wilders is a dominant player, so who would provide an alternative? On the fragmented left of the political spectrum, no viable alternative seemed to be present. Lodewijk Ascher of the Socialist-Democrats (PvdA) has his own struggle to ease his party away from its stigma as VVD-coalition partner. Alexander Pechtold, the chairman of the D66 had set himself up from the very beginning as Wilders’ strongest critic and the advocate of the essential democratic warrants. Since the polls indicated that the electoral decision is going to be made on the right side of the political spectrum, eventually, the real alternative has arisen from the side of the VVD.
As a result, Mark Rutte had little choice but to adopt part of Wilders’ discourse on migration, Islamic minorities, security, and identity. The tone was set famously with his words ‘if you can’t behave normally, you just have to bugger off’, which he said in the Dutch television programme ‘Zomergasten’ last August. For me personally, this also marked the end of my daily television viewing. The radio was switched off and I omitted the daily polls, news programmes, and political talk shows with moderate degree. I had already made up my mind. But that statement seemed to have set off the electoral contest, around which the political debate would unfold: the daily life worries and anxieties of the Dutch Average Man and the favor of the public opinion.
The race to define and win over the Average Man
Who then is this ‘Average Man’? A man, first of all. A lover of ‘our freedoms’, of ‘normality’, and of the Netherlands as our ‘fantastic country’, thus Mark Rutte. According to the annual publication Continue Surveys Civic Attitudes (Continue OnderzoekBurgerperspectieven) of the SPB, the issues that dominate the public opinion domain are those of immigration and integration, concerns over the direction of the Netherlands, pessimism for the future generation, and a desire for more direct democracy. From the political campaigns one can easily understand that these survey results are closely being followed: the inclusion of refugees, the safeguard of pensions, health care, security and areal safety are on the top of the agenda. At the same time, the debate unfolds around very trivial issues. Would you like a 120km or 130km speed limit? More or less social healthcare for disabled employees? Subsidizing green gardens or more road surfacing? A longer maternity leave? Sunday family day? A higher reimbursement for volunteers?
What is the new normal? This, by the VVD, is not further described or precisely spelled out. They do tell us what it is not: receiving social benefits and not do one’s best. Antisocial behaviour in the traffic. Defying Dutch folklore figure Black Piet his dark skin colour. Having an immigrant background, but not appreciating Dutch norms and values. In a political talk-show, Habbe Zijlstra from the VVD party later explained to Eva Jinek that the behavior of the first category should be enforced. But the second group, whose country of origin can be assigned, on the other hand, should be expelled. It is thus not a racist or xenophobe discourse, -mostly–and it does not judge what you believe in or adhere to, but whether you appreciate Black Piet, respect the equal rights of LGBT, lead a hard-working life and embrace our ‘Dutch guts and common sense’. And it is precisely the establishment of these norms that criticizers like Bas Heijne are up against.
Some political parties find their new normal in the safe accommodation of peacefulness and predictability that characterized the Dutch society in the 1950’s. In these mores of the past, ‘social illnesses’ as migration, Islam, or criminality were still absent. When we take a look at the body language of the candidates, in the advertising spots or on their election tours, this appeal to an ‘ordinary Dutchness’ is quite explicit. In average towns, we see politicians giving street interviews on the market places, hand shaking with random bystanders, and auto-cues on local neighborhood squares. Dutch politicians have build up, over the past years, a track record of having themselves filmed on their bikes when heading to the coalition talks. In a review of the 25 campaign spots of the parties, the Volkskrant had criticized the overt images of meadow landscapes, of mills and highways, crowded cities and idem shopping streets – landscapes and nostalgia that suggest social cohesion, a sense of hominess and engagement with the people.
To be sure, not only the VVD and PVV emphasize in their electoral campaigns the ‘typical Dutch’; also the progressive parties do it. Emile Roemer from the SP was photographed in his former primary school, while party leader Gert-Jan Segers from the Christian Party (CU) chooses his family life in the living room as set of décor. But also the other parties drift on the identity debate. The PvdA had spoken out against unlawful use by Romanians and Bulgarians of social security benefits. The SP, traditionally a party that advocates a Netherlands for the Dutch, sets itself strong against labor migration. The Green Party (Groen Links), conversely, formulates a cosmopolitan alternative for the voters with front head Jesse Klaver, young, progressive, and internationalist, as the embodiment.
Debate over values VS. debate over norms
Thus, we are shifting from a value debate to a norm debate. If we compare this to Greece, and I will do this very carefully, we see that in Greece the politicians also walk showing up without ties and wearing jeans. They are too predominantly men. They attempt to reflect a form of normality. And flirt with a sling of ‘Greekness’. The difference, though, is that they dress in leather coats out of sense of defiance to any subverting authority. Notions as ‘left’ and ‘right’ in the discourse still really matter. Greek politicians have to represent an idea over issues, over which they are measured and consequently judged. The Dutch political culture, conversely, is one of accountability, integrity and unpretentiousness. In the Netherlands the overall public confidence in democracy is still very strong. Yes, the Dutch complaints are targeting the political parties, the ‘party cartels’ and the governance culture. But for changes and improvements, one would always look politics and governance first.
In the meantime, a gamut of political newcomers has filled the 28-party list the Electoral Council. Debutants as JezusLeeft, the Pirate Party, Artikel 1, Niet Stemmers, Forum of Democracy, DENK and the Women’s Party have emerged on both the left and right flanks of the political scene. Some of them are political splinter parties, while others have risen in the vanguard municipalities, where in the past years a big number of local civic political platforms have sprung up. The decentralisation politics with consequent emancipatory effects thereby seem to have yield results. Even in Amsterdam North, compellingly attracted to the self-depiction as a periphery, citizens have created their own political plans and platforms. A friend of mine, to all surprises, – known for her devotion to local city making and otherwise distance of everything politics, became one of the vote -hunters of the Pirate Party. But see also the rise of G1000, Forum of Democracy, De Burger Beweging, Geen Peil, VNL and other reform parties have commenced out of citizen initiatives and –platforms. Their promises? Devotion to give people a greater say over one’s own kitchen, to take hand over local issues and concerns, to grant villagers their ‘do democracy’.
How I saw my society changing
Our societies are changing – not only in the Netherlands-, and maybe our political establishment has not been the right body to walk along with the trend. My Egyptian neighbor, who arrived thirty years ago in Amsterdam North, stunned me with his anger when he addressed his concerns over the Moroccan boys in the neighborhood:“These youngsters are harassing our streets with their gangs. These boys are driven by material concerns only, early school-leavers, aiming for the quick money and big cars. Their parents don’t look after them. Nor does society provides a decent stick to counter the immediate carrot of cash.” Similar critiques had been expressed by Humphrey, an old man that I got to know when living in a social housing block in Amsterdam East. Born in Suriname, he arrived as a teenager to the Netherlands in the 1980s. Yes, he had to change his name to an appropriate Dutch one. But in this state-subsidized multiculturalism, he could employ all types of vague businesses; sold books on the streets, managed real estate, and organized illegal parties while at the same time being taken care of by the state. Now a pensioner from the NS, he blames nothing but the state for this ‘multicultural utopia’ that provided him the road into anarchy.
Their realities have seized to exist. But these individuals and their following generations of migrants have – against all odds– remained. They account, according to the most recent census of CBS in 2016, for 1.92 million first generation and 1.83 million second generation immigrants – or allochtones – on a total population of 17.7 million. Both of these generations ‘couscous-bakers’ with multiple habitats and senses of belongings pointed in a critical way to a problem that was supposedly not yet salonfahig in The Hague. And now it has been brought up, with force, within the framework of an identity debate and protection of Dutch values.
Are my concerns with the current electoral democracy legitimate? On the grand picture, elections should provide a vision, I believe, on how to create a society that is resilient towards the challenges of our future: the environment, changing demographic compositions and a large elder upper layer, regional shrinkage and depopulation, and the robotize of labor. I did not find answers in the politicians’ statements made in the show spectacle of personal politics, in their race of the ‘polling democracy’.
Irene Arnold, Thessaloniki
Irene Arnold is currently doing a Masters in European Journalism at the Media Department of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.