The Rotterdam Enigma: Dutch Cities in the 2023 General Election

In the United States, electoral patterns increasingly correlate with population density, with voters in metropolitan cores favoring the left and those in more peripheral areas preferring the populist right. Does this pattern hold in the Netherlands? The answer is partially “yes” but mostly “no.” The situation, in other words, is complicated.

As the map posted below shows, in a few Dutch provinces the municipalities with the largest city were the only ones that favored GreenLeft-Labour, with all others giving the plurality of their votes to a conservative party, mostly Geert Wilders’ PVV. Intriguingly, this pattern is limited to peripheral provinces: Zeeland, Groningen, and North Brabant. It almost holds in Friesland, but the province’s – and the country’s –  two most sparsely populated municipalities, Schiermonnikoog and Vlieland, also voted GreenLeft-Labour. It is probably not coincidental that they heavily depend on tourism.

In the Dutch demographic and economic core, however, this electoral pattern breaks down. This region, called the Randstad (“Rim City”), is roughly equivalent to the provinces of North Holland, South Holland, and Utrecht. It is conventionally divided into two subregions, the “South Wing” (Zuidvleugel), anchored by Rotterdam and the Hague, and the “North Wing” (Noordvleugel), anchored by Amsterdam and Utrecht (although the Utrecht area is sometime seen as constituting a wing of its own). The Randstad is home to some 8.4 million people, roughly half of the Netherlands’ population. Between its two wings lies the more sparsely populated Groene Hart (“Green Heart”), a region dominated by farms and wetlands, although it also contains a few cities, such as Gouda and Zoetermeer.

As the map below shows, the North Wing of the Randstad largely fits the electoral pattern found in the United States, with most of its larger cities giving a plurality of their votes to the GreenLeft-Labour Party and with plurality support for Geert Wilders’ PVV mostly confined to more peripheral areas. Amsterdam, Utrecht, Haarlem, Amersfoort, and Hilversum (the Dutch media capital) are all unsurprisingly colored red for the Labour Party on the map to the left below.

It is a different story, however, in the Randstad’s South Wing. Rotterdam and The Hague, the Netherlands’ second- and third-largest cities, both gave plurality support to the populist-right PVV. In this region the only municipalities to support GreenLeft-Labour were Leiden, a university center, and Delft. Gouda, located in the Randstad’s “Green Heart,” also voted GreenLeft-Labour.

The fact that the PVV came in first place in Rotterdam and The Hague does not, however, mean that they are dominated by the populist right. In the former city, PVV received 22 percent of the vote while GreenLeft Labour got 19.8%, center-right VVD 11.2%, pro-immigrant but socially conservative DENK 10.4%, and center/center-right NSC 9.0%. Similar ratios were found in The Hague. Although profoundly mixed, these results indicate “center-leaning” electorates shifting in a right-populist direction. In both Rotterdam and The Hague, Geert Wilder’s PVV Party more than doubled its level of support over that received in the previous election.

The popularity of such a vociferously anti-immigrant party is especially surprising in Rotterdam, a city demographically dominated by recent immigrant and their descendants. Fifty-two percent of its residents have at least one parent born outside of the country. Since 2009, moreover, Rotterdam’s mayor has been Ahmed Aboutaleb, a Muslim of Moroccan descent who represents the Labour Party. Rotterdam is also a relatively poor city, which, by conventional reasoning, would lead one to expect a higher level of support for Labour and other parties of the left.

One theory for Rotterdam’s populist shift focuses on the city’s non-immigrant population, contending that that the influx of migrants and the increased cultural diversity that it entails has pushed them in a xenophobic direction. But some evidence indicates that increasing numbers of immigrants are themselves turning to the PVV. A recent Guardian article, for example, reports that:

Across the street, Hasan Jakh, a recently arrived immigrant from Turkey, confessed he had voted for Wilders, driven by his frustration over the lack of affordable housing. “It’s stupid that he’s so Islamophobic,” he said. “But for the rest, he’s great.”

Housing affordability seems to be a key factor in the growing support for anti-immigration parties, and not just in Rotterdam. Just because a person is of immigrant origin does not necessarily entail support more immigration, especially if it is perceived to be against one’s own economic interest.

Not surprisingly, Rotterdam’s populist turn has generated considerable interest and concern among scholars. As the conclusion to an edited collection on the topic by Steven Vertovec begins:

What’s the matter with Rotterdam? This is a question I asked in a 2017 lecture (available to view at www.mmg.mpg.de), when trying to figure out how and why the city seems to disrupt common contemporary narratives concerning migration and cities. That is, social scientists since Simmel have postulated that cities are largely incubators of cosmopolitanism, or openness (if only indifference) to socio-cultural differences. It is often presumed that such openness goes together with an acceptance of ethnic diversity and immigration. Opinion polls and ethnographic research in cities usually bears out this presumption. Hence, it comes as surprising if not shocking to learn that in super-diverse Rotterdam – with over 50% of its population stemming from some 180 nations – the urban model of cosmopolitan incubator seems to fail. Authors in this collection have pointed to developments in Rotterdam by way of negative reactions to diversity, substantial voting for rightwing, anti- immigrant parties, and an ‘unhappy version’ of super-diversity in which the growth of a disapproving atmosphere has led to sharper ethnic boundaries, retreat into white enclaves, and low levels of white-ethnic minority social contact. Indeed, what’s the matter with Rotterdam?

In this volume we have read of how, despite – or because of? – its remarkable levels and kinds of diversity, Rotterdam is the Dutch city with the highest number of voters for Geert Wilders’ populist PVV (Partij voor de Vrijheid or Party for Freedom), and where the rightwing Leefbaar Rotterdam (Livable Rotterdam) party, heirs of Pim Fortuyn’s anti-immigrant movement, is also the City Council’s largest. How and why has this particular configuration (a high degree of super-diversity combined with strong right-wing sentiments) arisen?

Vertovec’s analysis, however, is rather indecisive, although he does conclude that “there is nothing the matter with Rotterdam.” What I wonder is whether Rotterdam is more a singular exception to a firmly ensconced rule or more a harbinger of things to come. In the United, communities rooted in relatively recent immigrations streams are also showing signs of moving in a right-populist direction, as Ruy Teixeira emphasizes. If this trend holds, we may see major political upheavals and electoral reconfigurations in the coming years.