What the “Migrantenpartijen” Want in Amsterdam

A month before the European elections, the international political debate has shifted to the Netherlands. There, the far-right rising star Thierry Baudet has declared his aspiration to lead the Dutch delegation to Brussels by striving for first place at the 23 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 evident such consequence is that minorities, non-western immigrants and their descendants have started to organize political parties to defend themselves from the rising anti-migrant rhetoric, nowadays embraced by an increasing share of the population.

The most vocal of the new “migrantenpartijen” is Denk, which will run 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.

How did we get to the point in which Dutch politics is so polarized that the parliament contains both the far-right anti-immigrant Forum voor Democratie (FvD) and a pro-migrant party like Denk? To answer this question, we must step back to 2002.


The Dutch Labour Party and Socialist Party shift on minority groups


Suddenly, at the beginning of the millennium the idyllic picture of a Scandinavian-style country of “compromise and tolerance” was shattered by the murder of Pim Fortuyn—an eccentric, openly gay, conservative politician, and declared enemy of a multi-ethnic society. This was a time when criticizing multiculturalism was generally not accepted by Dutch mainstream society. The death of Fortuyn 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.

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 Netherlands’ multi-ethnic society occurred when Tunahan Kuzu and Selçuk Öztürk — two PvdA MPs of Turkish background — were expelled by the group.

The expulsion was the culmination of a fierce internal debate sparked by a report stating that 90% of young Dutch-Turkish were supportive of ISIS. The expulsions (or resignations — neither the PvdA nor the Denk founders can agree who made the first step) of the two MPs were so explosive because they did not come about because of any particular political or policy disagreement but simply based on their minority identity.

The report’s findings — which were actively promoted by the PvdA leader Lodewijk Asscher, back then minister of Social Affairs — turned out to be overestimated and its credibility was called into question. Yet Asscher stood firm in his criticism of the apparent failure of integration and many have seen this as a clear statement of the position the party, once the most “Muslim friendly” in the country.

On the other hand, Kuzu and Öztürk, both born in Turkey, were aware of the huge potential of the “migrant vote” at a time of turmoil time — Wilders was making massive gains, Mark Rutte’s liberal VVD was embracing anti-migrant rhetoric, and other left-wing parties abandoning internationalism to focus on mainstream Dutch voters.


Denk as the multi-ethnic response against “white privilege” in the Netherlands


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 antiracist, multi-ethnic, and anti-colonial presenting a programme with a strong stance on the left but with loud rhetoric against “white privilege” and institutionalized racism in the Netherlands.

Many academics, like 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 like of Wilders’ Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) and Baudet’s 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 Öztürk were returned as MPs and were joined by Farid Karzan, born in Morocco. Denk’s three MPs have since piqued nationwide and even international interest. The reaction by mainstream politics and the national press has been, in general, negative.

Wilders accused the party of being “agents” of Turkish President Erdoğan because of rumors that the party has been actively supported by the Diyanet, a powerful Turkish state agency responsible for administering Turkish-Muslim religious communities in Europe. The Telegraaf, the main national paper, has labeled Denk a “product of failed integration”.

The Netherlands’ so-called “Turkish party” does not merely appeal to “Nederturks” (and, indeed, is rejected by Dutch-Kurds and anti-Erdoğan Dutch-Turkish). It has attracted support also from a large share of the Dutch-Moroccan community and many native Dutch disaffected with mainstream politics. But it also underlines the radical transformation a country once considered a world example for diversity and cohabitation of cultures has undergone.


In Dutch major cities, minority parties are rising


Now in its fifth year, Denk is one of the most successful examples of a “mijgranten 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 labeled itself because of the international tribunals it hosts, political fragmentation is so thick 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 decolonization 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 gets more marginalized from the mainstream society. However, mostly relying on activism and identity, the migrant parties have managed to mobilize people who have never been involved in politics before. They have directly challenged the concept of “integration”— holding it out as a neo-colonial tool of native-born to force assimilation — replacing it with the idea of “acceptance”.

Denk now leads the way. And if its position in recent opinion polling holds up, it will likely fulfill its ambition of becoming the first migrant party ever to gain a seat in the European parliament.


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