A coalition of losers

Tiny Kox argues that a fear of moving away from the neoliberal consensus left the Netherlands with a government that doesn’t reflect the views of the Dutch

Although general elections in the Netherlands are scheduled for 2011, the chance that Dutch citizens will already have to cast their votes in the fall of 2010 is quickly increasing. The actual Government of Labour and Christian Democrats – the country’s two biggest parties – supported by the smaller Christian Union, in office since 2007, will have to dismantle several major political cluster bombs if it wants to survive. Halfway through January Parliament will receive the result of an official independent inquiry of the role of the former Dutch Government in the US-UK-led Iraq war in 2003. Christian-Democratic Prime Minister Balkenende, who fiercely backed Bush and Blair in 2003, will now be in the centre of the debate on whether the Netherlands then violated international law.

Also in January, the Government will have to take a decision on whether or not to prolong Dutch military presence in Afghanistan. US President Obama and UK Prime Minister Brown are constantly pressing the Dutch Government to stay in Afghanistan, but the majority of both Parliament and public demand withdrawal of Dutch troops, before the end of the year. If the government can survive these two clear and present dangers, it will have to decide, before late Spring, how to deal with a possible draconic 35 billion euro budgetary cut in the Dutch welfare state, due to the financial and economical crisis that also is hitting Dutch society. In between January and June, local elections in March could easily turn out to be a disaster for both Social and Christian Democrats and put both parties under unbearable pressure of its membership to end the strangling cooperation in Government. Meanwhile, outside Parliament, the trade unions will try to mobilise the working class to oppose the Government’s proposal to raise the pension age from 65 to 67. If the unions prevail (public opinion is at their side but a parliamentary majority until now backs the Government), the Government will have to step down.

Dutch coalition Governments come, go and change – and in the meanwhile, often do not quite represent the wish of the voters. The actual Government was formed in January 2007 by two parties which both lost the elections

Looking to Dutch politics from abroad, transparency will probably not be the first thought in a person’s mind. Dutch politics means an inevitable great number of bigger and smaller parties in Parliament, right, left, centre, some religious inspired, others secular based, elected via a system of proportional representation. It also means a steady tradition of coalition governments ever since the introduction of general suffrage in 1919 – but also a tradition of governments that do not complete their full term in office. So, Dutch coalition Governments come, go and change – and in the meanwhile, often do not quite represent the wish of the voters. The actual Government was formed in January 2007 by two parties which both lost the elections – but nevertheless succeeded to leave the big winner of the elections outside a coalition, by asking the small somewhat fundamentalist Christian Union to join them in a narrow majority coalition, that nobody would have thought of before elections day.

The big winner of the November 2006 elections was, without any doubt, the Socialist Party, positioned clearly to the left of Labour and the Greens. SP won over 16 per cent of the votes and 25 out of the 150 MPs in the Second Chamber of the States-General. Its attempts to enter Government for the first time in its history, however, failed due to the harsh resistance of the centre-right Christian Democrats to enter into a Government with two left parties, and the understandable fear of Labour to bring its main ideological competitor into a favourable position from which it could try to take over the number one position in the Dutch Left. Whereas Social and Christian Democrats ingeniously did succeed to form a coalition of losers in January 2007, leaving the winner out in opposition, its coalition Government since then never succeeded to gain much public support, neither in the good times of 2007/2008 nor in the crisis years of 2008/2009.

While winning the 2006 elections, the failure to enter the new government in 2007, also did cost the SP some of its public support. Many people were disappointed that the expected shift to the left in government policy did not happen and most things stayed as they were. Being now the biggest opposition party of course strengthens SP’s position but not to that extent that the party could already seriously influence Government’s internal economical and social policy. Although rightwing liberals (also in opposition now) like to say the Government is afraid of us and that we participate in the Government’s policy from the opposition seats in Parliament, reality shows that we are indeed able to block some neoliberal developments, for example in health care and education, and that we did get bonuses and top salaries on the political agenda – but nevertheless the political mainstream is still neoliberal style. The Government continues the privatisation of state owned energy companies and got a parliamentary majority for a raise of the pension age – which is in effect a Big Robbery: people will not be able nor allowed to work longer (most elderly people nowadays have to stop working before 63), but they will have to wait two more years for getting the pension they were promised to get at 65. Meanwhile Governments continues to decrease both company taxes as well as taxes for the Rich. More successful until now are our attempts to press the Prime Minister to finally accept an official Iraq-inquiry and to press Labour to take a clear stance against prolonged Dutch military participation in the Afghanistan war. Both results could lead to a collapse of the Government in the near future.

Whether the SP will be able to mobilise in the coming months together with the trade unions and Dutch working class against the proposed raising of the pension age to 67 is not yet clear. The same goes for the struggle against the upcoming other severe cuts in the welfare state. Although SP’s resistance to the Government’s policy is backed by a big share of the public, that same public is not yet convinced that resistance will be effective anyhow, giving the continued support of Parliament for the governmental approach of the crisis. Part of the problem of gettin a regime change in our country after the next elections is that the Netherlands have hardly any experience with a left orientated Government. Most governments have been dominated by centre right Christian Democrats, in changing coalitions with Labour and Liberals. Only in the 1990s did the Netherlands get, for a period of eight years, a Lib-Lab-coalition headed by a Labour Prime Minister but clearly based on a neoliberal ideology. So, Dutch governments use to be centre-right. That is what we know. And although many people have a lot to complain about, quite a lot of them also tend to say when asked about the future Government: ‘better the devil you know than the devil you do not know…’

SP: main opposition party of the Netherlands

The Dutch Socialist Party SP, founded in 1972, operated for over two decades as a socialist grass roots movement before entering the national Parliament in 1994. Since then its national popularity has grown quickly, due to its clear opposition to neo liberal policy of changing coalition governments of Christian, Social and Liberal Democrats. Since 2006, SP is the country’s main opposition party and, with 47,000 members, the third party by membership, just behind Christian and Social Democrats. Although it can trace its origins in the Marxist-Leninist movement of the early 1970s, the Dutch Socialist Party exchanged long since this borrowed ideology for a home grown variety which prioritises practice over theory, and action in the here-and-now to dreams of a distant utopia. The party defines socialism in its party program as the ongoing movement for human dignity, equality and solidarity. The SP now has 25 MPs in the Lower House, 11 Senators in the Upper House, two MEPs in Brussels/Strasbourg, three MPs in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and is represented in all 12 Provincial Parliaments and in about 100 city councils. In 2005, the SP lead the successful Dutch campaign against the European Constitution. Although nearly all parties in Parliament supported the proposed Treaty, nearly two out of three citizens said no to it in a nation wide referendum. In 2009, the Government, scared for another defeat, refused its citizens a second referendum on the Lisbon Treat (although Labour promised its voters in 2006 such a referendum). Parliament ratified it, while SP was voting against in Lower and Upper House, backed by a majority of the public.

While strongly opposing the neo liberal development of the European Union since the Maastricht Treaty, SP advocates European cooperation as such, as necessary and inevitable. Therefore SP representatives participate actively in the European Parliament as well as in the parliamentary assemblies of the Council of Europe and the OSCE. In the European Parliament and the Council of Europe the SP participates in the Group of the United European Left. More information: www.international.sp.nl

Another part of the problem is the fear of Labour to get into an electoral alliance of the Left – and after elections end in the opposition together with SP and Greens, while the Christian Democrats enter into a new coalition with the right. On our next Congress on January 30 the SP leadership will propose to its members to continue the party’s attempts to mobilise the people outside the Parliament against the Government’s social, economical and foreign policy, while also attempting to free Labour from its understandable but yet ineffective fears for a left electoral alliance as a realistic alternative to a next centre-right Government. We as SP cannot but combine these two elements of our political approach. Without a strong base in social struggle, the party would lack its main reason of existence; without allies in Parliament, SP participation in a coalition is not possible. But while organising social struggle, we necessarily provoke those Labour-forces which are hostile to us, and give them even more arguments to increase their resistance against an electoral alliance of the Left. Our hope to convince Labour nevertheless to look to left options, is related to the clear wish of a majority of Labour membership for some kind of cooperation of the Left.

And of course: the financial and economical crisis that has hit the world, shows how the neoliberal approach has failed to deliver what it promised to citizens. The mantra of more market and less government, combined with the processes of deregulation, liberalisation and privatisation, clearly have proven to be false and ineffective. Now neo liberalism is losing its credibility, it is up to us who believe in socialist alternatives to convince the public about the possibility of such an alternative. In the next 18 months local, provincial and national elections will show whether or not we van meet this challenge.