Parties Take Sides in Netherlands’ Culture War

Odd alliances emerge at an election debate, revealing that the political divide is shifting away from left versus right.

Dutch defense minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert greets residents of Mazar, Afghanistan, March 9, 2015
Dutch defense minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert greets residents of Mazar, Afghanistan, March 9, 2015 (Ministerie van Defensie/Eva Klijn)

A debate on Sunday between the top female candidates of the five biggest political parties in the Netherlands revealed that the old left-right divide is giving way to something new.

The center-right liberals and the far-left Socialists are polar opposites in terms of foreign and security policy. Yet they found themselves on the same side when the Christian Democrats proposed to criminalize the glorification of violence.

The liberal party’s number two and incumbent defense minister, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, cautioned that such a step — targeted at jihadist propaganda — could lead a thought police.

The Socialists don’t have much in common either with the nationalist Freedom Party, except their candidates both rejected as “fearmongering” warnings from the other parties that an exit from the European Union would surely destroy Dutch jobs.

The Socialists’ economic program has little in common with the liberal Democrats’, yet the two parties chastised the Christian Democrats, Freedom Party and liberals for suggesting that immigrants who refuse to accept Dutch values, like gay and women’s rights, ought to go back to where they came from.

Culture war

These alignments seem unusual in the left-right context. The Freedom Party and Socialists are supposed to be on opposite ends of the spectrum, yet they agree on issues like health care and the EU. The Christian Democrats and liberals are supposed to be center-right allies, yet they disagree on something so fundamental as values.

These alignments make more sense when they’re seen through the lens of what the Atlantic Sentinel calls Europe’s blue-red culture war over modernity.

It are no longer economic or class interests that divide the parties into two camps. Rather, it are questions of identity, belonging and the Netherlands’ place in the world that define which sides they’re on.

Challenge for the center

This is a challenge for parties in center, like the Christian Democrats and Hennis’ liberals.

Earlier this month, I argued that the liberals would rather the elections in March were about the economy, which is the issue on which they are trusted the most.

All indicators point to a healthy recovery: consumer spending and industrial production are up, exports and investments are rising, joblessness is down to 5.4 percent. Between 1.6 and 2.1 percent growth is projected for 2017. This ought to benefit a party that has been in power since 2010.

A focus on cultural and immaterial issues, however, such as immigration and values, helps the extremes in the blue-red culture war: the cosmopolitan liberal Democrats and Greens on the one hand and the nationalist Freedom Party on the other.

Liberal Democrat and Green party voters are mostly urban. Support for the Freedom Party is concentrated in the Dutch periphery.

Both camps are supported by around one in five voters, which leaves around 60 percent of the electorate to the other parties.

The Freedom Party could become the single largest, but it is unlikely to end up in government. The liberals, led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte, are expected to remain in office in a coalition with three or four other parties. The relative size of the ruling parties will determine which way policy goes: in a more globalist or a more nativist direction.

Away from the extremes

Rutte, the Christian Democrats and the Socialists are all trying to pull voters away from the blue and red extremes.

The Christian Democrats and Socialists are eying potential Freedom Party voters.

In addition to their anti-jihadist proposal, the former argue for the introduction of a mandatory national service and against the decriminalization of cannabis. Their appeal is to voters who feel Dutch society has become too licentious.

The Socialists emphasize plans to spend more on elderly care and reform the free movement of labor in Europe. Their appeal is to older and working-class voters who feel left behind.

The liberals are trying to have it both ways. By prioritizing the freedom of conscious over fears of terrorism, they appeal to liberal-minded voters on the left. Admonishing immigrants who refuse to adjust to Dutch society, on the other hand, appeals to nativists on the right.

The risk is that liberals will end up satisfying neither side. But if they succeed, they may have found a way to bridge the blue-red divide.