Geert Wilders

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.

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The Shift Toward Rightwing Populism in the Centrist Electorate of the Netherlands

The recent Dutch election sent out political shockwaves that extend well beyond the Netherlands, as noted in media outlets both left and right. A headline in right-leaning Spiked Online reads “The Humiliation of the Dutch Establishment: The Victory of Geert Wilders Shows Voters are Desperate to Hit Back Against the Elites,” while one in left-leaning Daily Beast claims that “Shock Election Triumph Crowns Geert Wilders as the World’s ‘King of Islamophobia: Far-right Populist … Scores Huge Victory in Dutch Election, Despite Previous Conviction and Bans.” Although such interpretations are understandable, they obscure the complexities of Dutch electoral politics and exaggerate the trends that this election revealed. Although Wilders’ right-populist Party for Freedom (PVV) did better than any other party, it still took less than a quarter of the votes cast, giving it only 37 out of 150 seats in the House Representatives. It will be a challenge, and perhaps an impossibility, for Wilders to cobble together a coalition large enough for him to form a government and become prime minister. If that does happen, his Party for Freedom will probably have to moderate if not abandon its most controversial positions. (It is his party, moreover, as he is the sole member.)

With strictly proportional representation and a low threshold – 0.67% ­– for parliamentary representation, the Netherlands has a complex political environment with many competitive parties. In 2023, 15 received enough votes for representation in the House of Representative, down from 17 in 2021. As a result, multi-party coalitions are generally needed to gain a parliamentary majority of 76 seats.

 To get a better sense of the election results, I have arranged the main Dutch parties along a conventional one-dimensional political spectrum, extending from the far-left to the far-right (see below). In doing so, I relied on Wikipedia to categorize their political positions along this axis, as it uses relatively consistent criteria for doing so. I am, however, skeptical of the one-dimensional “left-right” spectrum, omnipresent though it is. It has never adequately captured the essence of political viewpoint diversity, and its misalignment with actual conditions is currently intensifying. What is needed instead is multi-dimensional model of political space. But for time being, I reluctantly retain the one-dimensional scheme. But I do deviate from the norm by dividing Dutch parties into three main categories: left, right, and center. Given the strength, albeit diminishing, of the Dutch political center, this scheme is more fitting than a simple “left/right” bifurcation. In the system used in the diagram below, a party that is deemed either “center-right” or “center-left” by Wikipedia is slotted into the broad political “center,” while one described as “center-left to left-wing” is classified instead as “leftwing,” just as one deemed “center-right to right-wing” is classified as “rightwing.” Several of Wikipedia’s designations, however, are highly debatable, and as a result the categorization scheme found below should be regarded as merely suggestive.

As the diagram shows, although the center parties suffered a sharp rebuke in the 2023 election, together they remain the Netherlands’ largest block by a considerable margin. Overall, the Dutch electorate skews slightly to the right of center, at least according to the classification scheme used here. In the 2023 general election, the political center’s loss resulted in major gains for the populist right. Rightwing populist voters moved toward Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV), with two smaller parties of the same ilk losing support. One of these, JA21, portrays itself a “proper” rightwing party, less radical than Wilders’ PVV (although Wikipedia slots them into the same political space). The other, FvD, is usually regard as more radical than PVV, as well as more favorable to Vladimir Putin. The more centrist but still right-populist BBB, or Farmer-Citizen Movement, also registered major gains. It did not, however, perform nearly as well as it had in the Dutch provincial elections earlier in this year, when it took 19 percent of the vote nationwide and gained the largest number of seats in all 12 Dutch provinces. The BBB’s agrarian focus, along with the lack of ambition for national leadership by its leader, Caroline van der Plas, probably contributed to its loss of votes in the general election.

Of the three Dutch electoral segments outlined here, the left is clearly the weakest. It now receives much less support than it had in the late twentieth century, when the leader of the Labour Party (PvdA) Wim Kok served as Prime Minister (1994 to 2002). After poor showings in 2021, the two main “center-left/leftwing” parties, Labour and the Greens, combined to form PvdA–GroenLinks (GreenLeft-Labour). As can be seen, this joint party did relatively well in 2023, winning eight seats more than its two constituent parties had won in 2021. Its gains, however, apparently came at the cost of the Netherland’s more leftwing parties, which collectively lost eight seats. The party furthest to the left, the Marxian, identity-focused BIJ1, did not receive enough votes to retain parliamentary representation.

Despite its solid showing overall, the broad Dutch political center experienced major losses and profound upheaval in this election cycle. Its three main parties, center-right VVD (Party for Freedom and Democracy), center/center-right CDA (Christian Democratic Appeal), and center-center D66 (Democrats 66) saw a staggering collective loss of 35 seats. These three parties, along with the smaller Christian Union (which also lost seats), had formed the Netherland’s governing coalition. D66, which supports European Federalism, lost more than half of its seats, while CDA lost two-thirds. As a result, Christian Democratic Appeal is a now a shadow of its former self; as recently as 2006 it was the Netherlands’ top party, winning 41 seats and taking 26.5 percent of the vote that year. Many of the defections from the parties of the governing coalition went to a new center party, NSC (New Social Contract). Led by Ph.D economist Pieter Omtzigt, NCS grew out of the Eurosceptic wing of Christian Democratic Appeal. In the 2023 election, Omtzigt positioned himself as a maverick centrist, “conservative on immigration and climate change but leftist on reducing poverty and improving healthcare.” Significantly, the centrism of the larger Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) of out-going Prime Minister Mark Rutte is of the opposite order, leaning left on immigration and climate change while advocating small government, laissez-faire economics, and tax reductions. The centrism of the Turkish-oriented DENK party skews in yet another direction, to the left on immigration and multiculturalism, but increasingly to the right on social issues.

European integration, immigration, and climate-change mitigation were key issues in the 2023 Dutch election. Skepticism about all three figured prominently in the losses experienced by the center/center-right governing coalition, with some of its voters moving to the hard right and others to a less-internationalist version of Dutch centrism. Intriguingly, the story on the left was quite different, with its more Eurosceptical and anti-globalist parties losing seats to the more centrist and EU-oriented GreenLeft-Labour party.

Overall, the Dutch electorate clearly shifted to a more nationalistic and climate-skeptical position. Similar shifts have occurred recently in several other countries, although Poland notably bucked the trend, as was explored in previous GeoCurrents posts. This tendency challenges the idea that a single one-dimensional spectrum adequately captures the full array of political thought. It seems likely that we will continue to see the growth of parties and movements, like the Netherlands’ New Social Contract, that lean economically to the left but are more conservative on environmental, social, and immigration issues. Conversely, movements advocating the opposite mix, like the Teal Independents of Australia, could also gain clout, as could other alternative parties with their own eclectic policy ideas. Overall, the populist/establishment divide will probably intensify. As a result, democratic countries could see electoral destabilization with rapid swings in the fortunes of established political parties. Such a situation may be perilous, but it is also extremely interesting. Stay tuned.

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