The Relative Lack of Regional Voting Differences in the Netherlands – And the Partial Exception of Friesland

The Dutch general election of 2023 reveals a low degree of regional political differentiation, with most parties receiving relatively similar vote percentages across the country. The main exception is the special Dutch municipalities in the Caribbean: Bonaire, Sint Eustatius, and Saba.

Consider, for example, the provincial voting patterns for the top five parties (see the maps below). Geert Wilders’ PVV took between 17.6 (Utrecht) and 30.1 (Limburg) percent of the vote everywhere, coming in first place in every province except Utrecht and North Holland. As the first map shows, PVV did slightly worse in the Netherlands’ demographic and economic core (North and South Holland and Utrecht) and slightly better in more peripheral regions, but the differences are relatively small, and South Holland, the most populous province, defies the generalization. The GreenLeft-Labour Party narrowly came in first place in North Holland and Utrecht and also did relatively well in Groningen, historically noted for its labor activism, but again the discrepancies are relatively minor. Regional differences were also relatively muted for the main center-right party, VVD. The new centrist NSC party does, however, have something of a positive outlier in Overijssel; it is not coincidental that NSC is closely associated with its founder, Pieter Omtzigt, who lives in that province. The centrist party D66 also shows relatively minor regional voting variation, with the notable exception of the Netherlands’ Caribbean municipalities.

The Netherlands does, however, have a number of strictly regional political parties, but they generally restrict their activities to provincial elections. But as the map below shows, few of them gained more than a few percent of the vote in the 2023 provincial elections, and in the three core provinces (North and South Holland and Utrecht) their share was negligible. The one outlier on this map is Friesland, where the Frisian National Party took over 8 percent of the vote and the Provincial Interest of Friesland Party a little more than 2 percent. In 2003, however, the Frisian National Party received more than 13 percent of the vote in Friesland’s provincial election.

It is not surprising that Friesland would have the Netherland’s strongest regional party, as it is a culturally distinctive province with its own language, West Frisian. (In Frisian, “Friesland” is called “Fryslân.”) Despite its nationalistic name, the party does not push for independence. Instead, it advocates a federal system of governance for the country, which would allow substantial autonomy for Friesland. It also wants more support for the Frisian language and provincial control of local natural gas reserves. Although most regional political parties in Europe lean decidedly either to the left or the right, the Frisian National Party spans the spectrum. As reported by Wikipedia,  “According to a survey of 554 party members done by the European Policies Research Centre… in 2009, 5.05% of members identified as far-left  on the political spectrum, 13.9% as left-wing, 28.16% as center-left, 17.51% as centrist, 14.98% as center-right, 7.4% as right-wing, and 2.53% as far-right, with 10.47% unsure. Whether such ideological diversity helps or hinders the movement for Frisian autonomy is an open question.

Although the Frisians are not recognized as a distinct national minority in the Netherlands as they are in Germany, the Frisian language is in a much healthier condition in the former country. Whereas roughly half a million people speak West Frisian in the Netherlands, the two Frisian dialects (more properly, languages) of Germany together have only around 12,000 speakers. In schools in Dutch Friesland, instruction in the language is mandatory. But as the map posted below indicates, most people in southern Friesland cannot speak the language, although many more can understand it. Many Frisians fear, moreover, that their language will be gradually supplanted by Dutch.

Frisian was a much more important language a thousand years ago than it is today. As one of the maps posted above shows, it once covered the entire North Sea coast from what is now the Netherlands’ border with Belgium to Germany’s border with Denmark. Frisian is usually regarded as the language most closely related to English, although this interpretation remains somewhat controversial and it holds only if Scots English is reckoned as a dialect rather than a separate language. It must also be noted that English has undergone such profound transformations that its relatively close relationship with Frisian is by no means obvious to native speakers of either language.

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