Many Lessons from the Dutch Election

Dutch Freedom Party leader (Partij Voor De Vrijheid, PVV) Geert Wilders (L) holds a banner reading “Get out! This is our land” during a protest in front of the Turkish embassy at The Hague on March 8, 2017. (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty)

Montreal   As I tried to make my way through the snowageddon between the US and Canada, I kept trying to get updates on the election results in the Netherlands. In some ways my interest was less about the populist hoopla revolving around the party-of-one for Wilders, the Trumpish anti-immigrant, hate spewing rightwing candidate, than the fate of the other parties on the list. Waking up, the headlines heralded that the right-center party and the current prime minister had out polled Wilders, but there were many, perhaps more important stories hidden beneath those headlines.

My interest was more than casual. I had visited the Netherlands for several weeks in the fall discussing strategies around a campaign to restore national health insurance in the country and advising on various field, phone, and GOTV programs with the Socialist Party of the Netherlands, so I was very interested in how my friends and colleagues there had fared against the populist surge. The short answer, somewhat reassuring in these troubled times, though perhaps disappointing when compared to our hopes, was that they essentially held their own. Where they had 15 seats in the Parliament or 10% of the total, they polled enough to hold onto 14 seats. The Prime Minister’s party, while outpolling Wilders, still lost 8 seats or 20% of its total, while he added a third more seats or 5 to his total. There are 28 or so different parties in the Netherlands vying for their share of the national vote to apportion out accordingly the 150 total seats between each party, making it all something of a multi-party mess when it comes to governing.

The real loser was the center-left Labor Party, which was decimated in the election falling from the number two party with 38 seats to the Prime Minister’s party with 41 seats, in this election to only 9 seats, losing more than three-quarters of their seats. And, why? Because they had agreed to help form the governing coalition, and their members saw it as a sellout as the center-right governing party pushed more conservative programs and policies. The lesson for many parties was clear. Not only would they not be willing to join a government with Wilders and the populist rightwing, but they might also be committing political suicide by following Labor’s move and being whipsawed on program.

The SP/N base may not have grown, but the work and campaigns held country-strong for the most part giving them clear paths to build their future. The math seems to indicate that seventeen of Labor’s number might have gone to the Green Left Party which went up ten seats from four to fourteen, now tying SP/N, and the centrist party, Democrats 66, which went from twelve seats to nineteen. This is obviously a very fluid situation as parties try to construct a permanent home to house their new seats and to attract the almost dozen seats Labor lost that dissipated among parties both right and left.

The overriding problem might be how does Netherlands govern with so many fractions? The Prime Minister’s party won in some ways by going right to block Wilders, but that’s not a governing strategy, and that may leave it harder pressed to find a coalition with constructive values and policies that can construct a vision. Meanwhile the center and left parties have the opportunity to construct an alternate program and vision, and the SP/N’s work on healthcare reform may be a template worth modeling in the Netherlands and elsewhere, but it’s likely going to be an unsettling time for a while before bridges can be built towards the future.

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Good Political Parties are Good Community Organizations

dscn1993
volunteers making calls at night for the health care campaign

Amersfoort   Being embedded in the offices of the Socialist Party of the Netherlands for several days to help on the field programs involving their campaign to reform the private insurance-based health care system in their country, I have been able to sit in on a number of meetings with local chapter activists, leaders, and volunteers. After all of these days a lesson emerges that is surprising, but should not be: good political parties are good community organizations, and good community organizations create strong local parties. It seems simple to say that, but the task of getting it right is very difficult and complex.

There are forty different political parties in the Holland of all shapes and sizes. The Liberals are not liberal, but conservative. Labor is not all of labor. There is a Green Left Party which is building itself around social media. There is an Animal Party which is largely environmental. You get the picture. Interestingly, the health care reform effort initiated by the Socialists as a nonpartisan, national campaign has the support of many of these parties, even if not total agreement on each plank of the reform platform, along with a number of labor unions as well. 200,000 people have responded to the campaign at this point, and 75000 have asked for toolkits allowing them to take action and recruit more supporters. Just like any good, national organization, this is good, solid basic organizing where they have constructed a campaign around an issue with deep, broad-based support in order to win reform certainly, but also assuredly to build their party organization. That turns out to not be a simple task because of various privacy and database sharing restrictions in the Netherlands, but increasingly the glow from a popular and aggressive campaign is lighting the path to building a stronger party as well.

As interestingly to me have been the stories that lie at the infrastructure of strong local party chapters, because they are almost invariably stories of strong local campaigns. Chapter leaders from Utrecht, one of the largest Dutch cities, met the field and educational team for several hours. They told of having identified a particular neighborhood where they had little organization historically, but usually a solid vote. They wanted to build an organizing committee and door knock the area to build support. They even created a rudimentary application for smartphones with or without internet as a tool to use on the doors with pre-loaded addresses and a way to upload in the field or on a home computer the results of the visits as well as a ranking system from “a to e” to classify interest and support of their organization. The committee and the door knocking process turned up an issue around housing improvements that was compelling for many people. All of this is good, solid, basic community organizing. They had built a pool of 30 people who were willing to door knock and could reliably pull out 15 or so to do the work. This committee was largely from outside of the community and they did not ask people to join, so there were differences, but when they told of winning a housing issue that delivered a victory for about 240 families, it wasn’t so different from the best stories ACORN community groups would tell. When they did get around to asking for support in the form of selling a local newspaper, 90% of the folks were glad to pitch in a euro to do so.

They weren’t alone. Another chapter in a smaller city in the south won a local, neighborhood issue in a area with many elderly families. In a small suburb of Amsterdam, attendance at a local meeting soared to 200 on a national program where even the largest chapters were only pulling 80 to 120. The secret was no secret to any community organizer. They had knocked on the doors.

Historically, political parties were built like grassroots, community organizations. Where party members who are volunteers are still willing and motivated to do the work, that’s how strong local organizations are still built. The result is infectious and leads to things like a national healthcare reform campaign. It’s nice to be reminded that this is how politics can still work from the bottom up, since we witness too many campaigns, like the current one in the United States where everything is from the top down and local organization is mostly rumor and rarely fact.

dscn1994

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