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Surprised, Again, by Dutch Voters
Ido de Haan discusses the volatility of voter support for Dutch political parties in recent decades. (Photo by Kevin Matthews)

Surprised, Again, by Dutch Voters

A visiting historian and a UCLA political scientist analyze November's inconclusive election in the Netherlands.

Talk of banning the burka "is not serious, except that it's very dangerous."


In the Netherlands' inconclusive parliamentary election conducted Nov. 22, political parties that "positioned themselves" as "anti-political" made large gains at the expense of centrists, explained Ido de Haan, a Utrecht University historian who is teaching at UCLA during the 2006–07 academic year. Few observers had foreseen an outcome in which the two largest parties would both lose seats, or one in which the center-right Christian Democrats led by Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende would finish first in spite of a noticeable, if small, shift to the left by the electorate. De Haan and UCLA Professor Richard Anderson spoke at a Dec. 6 public event sponsored by the UCLA Center for European and Eurasian Studies and the Department of Political Science.

Also present was Madelien A. J. de Planque, the Dutch Consul General in Los Angeles; she took part in the question period following the back-to-back presentations. The speakers agreed that surprises have become the norm in Dutch elections. This was striking in 2002, when 26 candidates from a list advanced by an anti-Islam, anti-immigration crusader, Pim Fortuijn—who was murdered days before the election by an animal activist—won seats in parliament.

The surprise of the 2006 vote was a third-place showing by the Socialist Party (SP), which has Maoist roots. The SP took 26 seats in the 150-seat Tweede Kamer, up from nine, apparently at the expense of the center-left Labor Party, which lost 10 of its 42 seats. Other small parties made anticipated gains: the new anti-immigration Party of Freedom led by Geert Wilders took nine seats; a religious party called the Christian Union took six, up from three; and, picking up two seats, the Party for Animals became the first animal-rights party to win political representation at the national level anywhere in the world. The rightist People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, whose controversial Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk during the campaign had called for the banning of burkas and other coverings worn by Muslim women, was left with 22 seats after losing six.

Immigration and religious and ethnic integration remain sources of anxiety for Dutch voters, according to De Haan and Anderson. Government projections of increasing numbers of ethnic Turks, among others, refer to the groups as allochtonen, or those "not from here." Even in 2020, the immigrants and their children will be "not from here," according to the nomenclature used in the statistics, De Haan pointed out. "If you applied that to Los Angeles, I'm not sure how many Angelenos you'd be left with," he added. He cited polls showing that roughly 50 percent of Dutch people do not want to live next to an allochtoon.

Anderson suggested that worries over immigration accounted for some voters' shift from the Labor Party to the SP, even though both parties are comparatively accepting of immigration. The SP is "pro-immigrant," he said, but "people don't know that." Because the leftist party is known for opposition to the European Union, he said, it may be mistaken for an enemy of the EU's open-borders policy. (Although the Netherlands is becoming more ethnically diverse, the country recently has seen greater emigration than immigration.)

Neither of the professors took seriously Verdonk's call for the introduction of legislation to ban burkas, dismissing it as a stunt without any legislative consequences. "It's not serious," De Haan said, "except that it's very dangerous."

In addition to changes in the country's ethnic composition, De Haan considered several explanations for volatility in Dutch voting: the rupture since the mid-20th century of bonds between parties and traditional constituencies, such as Catholics; the rise of special, local concerns as motives for voting; the increasing importance of personality and media in politics; and falling support for public institutions and authorities. In conjunction with the last point, De Haan said that the 2005 Dutch vote against the European constitution could be read as a rejection of "any institution."

Neither De Haan nor Anderson was willing to guess at the outcome of ongoing talks on a new governing coalition.