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

By Massimiliano Sfregola

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.On the other hand, Kuzu and Ozturk, both born in Turkey, were aware of the huge potential of the "migrant vote" during this time of turmoil – Wilders was making massive gains, Mark Rutteʹs liberal VVD was embracing anti-migrant rhetoric, while other left-wing parties abandoned internationalism to focus on mainstream Dutch voters.

Denk – the multi-ethnic response to "white privilege"

Instead of resigning from the Tweede Kamer, the Dutch lower house, the two MPs 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. They cast their movement as anti-racist, multi-ethnic, and anti-colonial, presenting a programme with a strong left-leaning stance, outspoken against "white privilege" and institutionalised racism in the Netherlands.

Many academics, such as Floris Vermeulen of the University of Amsterdam and an expert on the "migrant parties" phenomenon, see Denk as a direct consequence of the crisis of the traditional parties and the rise of populists movements such as Wildersʹ Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) and Baudetʹs FvD.

At the March 2017 general elections, Denk became the first migrant party in Europe ever to see representatives elected to a national parliament. Kuzu and Ozturk were returned as MPs and were joined by Farid Karzan, born in Morocco. Denkʹs three MPs have since piqued the national and even international interest. The reaction of mainstream politics and the national press has been, in general, negative.

Wilders has accused the party of being "agents" of Turkish President Erdogan because of rumours that the party receives active support from the Diyanet, a powerful Turkish state agency responsible for administering Turkish-Muslim religious communities in Europe. The Telegraaf, the main national paper, has labelled Denk a "product of failed integration".Yet the Netherlandsʹ so-called "Turkish party" does not merely appeal to "Nederturks" (and, indeed, is rejected by Dutch-Kurds and anti-Erdogan Dutch-Turkish). It has also attracted support from a large share of the Dutch-Moroccan community and many native Dutch disaffected with mainstream politics. But it also underlines the radical transformation that the Netherlands – once considered a global example of diversity and cultural cohabitation – has undergone.

In major Dutch cities, popularity of minority parties growing

Now in its fifth year, Denk is one of the most successful examples of a "migranten partij", with a permanent national structure and elected representatives in several provinces and every city with a substantial minority population. But it is not the only one in the Netherlands to represent Dutch citizens with a migrant background. Big cities such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Den Haag all have local minority parties, mostly representing the fragmented and complex Muslim communities.

In Rotterdam, a former Green-left (Groenlinks) councilman with Egyptian roots, Nourdin El Ouali, founded "Nida", which in Arabic means "vote" and "unity". The party, a Muslim-inspired movement with a progressive stance on social issues and LGBTIQ-friendly positions, has been represented in the local council since 2014. This unusual combination has seen Nida gain much support among younger generations with a migrant background; Nida has also seen a representative elected to the Den Haag City Council.

In the "city of peace and justice", as the de facto capital has labelled itself because of the international tribunals it hosts, political fragmentation is so far advanced that three parties with an agenda for Muslim voters are competing: Nida, the Party of Unity (Partij van de Eenheid) and the Muslim Democrats (Islam Democraten). The three each hold a seat in the council and often represent the interests of different mosques and Islamic cultural centres.

In Amsterdam, where Denk attracts virtually all Muslim votes, yet another "migrants party" has appeared on the scene, this one representing the black community. Bij1, an explicitly feminist party, gained one seat at the last municipal elections. It was founded by Sylvana Simons, a Dutch-Surinamese TV actor, with a programme focused on de-colonisation and the rights of the black community, especially women.

For many, the rise of the "migrantenpartijen" is a worrying signal. As non-western minorities represent 13% of the population in The Netherlands, the main risk is that a relevant part of the country will become more marginalised from mainstream society. Nevertheless, by relying on activism and identity, the migrant parties have managed to mobilise people who have never been involved in politics before. They have directly challenged the concept of "integration" – calling it out as a neo-colonial tool of the native-born to force assimilation – and replaced it with the idea of "acceptance".

Denk is the trailblazer. If its position in recent opinion polls holds up, it seems likely to fulfil its ambition of becoming the first migrant party ever to gain a seat in the European parliament.

Massimiliano Sfregola

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