text Kirsten Verdel
From Kok to Fortuyn
After the social democrat leader Wim Kok announced his departure from politics on August 29, 2001, Ad Melkert became the new leader of the PvdA (the Dutch social democratic party).
Kok had led the government coalition of the PvdA, VVD (liberals) and D’66 (democrats) since 1994. This so-called ‘Purple Cabinet’ had ‘work, work, work’ as its theme. In the second half of 2001 a new political party was founded: ‘Leefbaar Nederland’ (Liveable Netherlands), which was soon led by Pim Fortuyn. Fortuyn criticized the coalition: he man¬aged to shift public attention to new themes, complaining about safety on the streets, waiting lists in the health care sector and the lack of efficiency in public administration. Fortuyn also became the centre of controversy for his views on Islam and his anti-immigration positions. He called Islam a backward culture and once said, “If it were legally possible, I’d say no more Muslims should ever enter this country”. His opponents and the media labelled him a far-right populist, but he fiercely rejected this label.
Fortuyn also became the leader of the local party Leefbaar Rotterdam (LR). Rotterdam had and still has a special position in the Netherlands. About half of the population is of non-Dutch origin and this had led to increasing tensions in the years before the local elections of 2002. With Fortuyn’s outspoken quotes about immigration, which were received well in some quarters after the 9/11 attacks, and a general lack of faith in the old political parties, LR scored a major breakthrough in the local elections in March 2002 and entered into a coalition to run the city. The PvdA social democrats, who had been in power for decades in Rotterdam, suddenly found themselves in the opposition. They dropped from 15 to 11 seats, while new kid on the block LR now took up 17 seats in the town hall. Fortuyn then turned his attention to the national elections of May 15 in the same year. He was dismissed from Leefbaar Nederland and founded his own List Pim Fortuyn (LPF) just a day later. On May 6, 2002, an animal rights activist murdered him. The shock reverberated through the whole country, but in the end Leefbaar Rotterdam survived.
However, LR had never anticipated such a great victory as they had on March 6. A lot of people were not screened very well before they were put on the list. This soon led to conflicts and after four years 7 out of the 17 members had left the party. But still, LR remained in power, together with the VVD and CDA (Christian Democratic Party).
The emphasis of LR’s policy in Rotterdam was on safety issues. Many repressive measures were taken to put a stop to the increasing numbers of criminal offences, and people’s fear of going out on the streets and to make the city cleaner than before. The Keileweg, which was a place where prostitution caused a lot of trouble, was closed. Beggars and homeless people near the Central Station were moved on. A new national law, known as ‘The Rotterdam Law’, made sure that people with a low income would not be able to move into the poorest, most troubled neighbourhoods anymore if all other efforts to improve these areas failed.
In the meantime the national elections were a bit of a different story. After Fortuyn was murdered, the LPF won 26 seats out of 150, becoming the second-largest party in parliament. The PvdA fell from 45 to 23 seats. Together with CDA and VVD, the LPF formed a new government. Chaos started the day the cabinet was installed however, with the resignation of one of the cabinet members. Continuous bickering and scandals within the LPF party as a whole, within the LPF parliament faction, between LPF ministers and high-ranking government officials and between LPF officials and the press went on daily for two months. After only 86 days the cabinet fell. In the new elections the LPF ended up with only 8 seats. The PvdA, under its new leader Wouter Bos, went up from 23 to 42 seats. The success of Wouter Bos had a lot to do with the reforms he announced for the party and with the disappointment of Dutch voters at the inability of the new parties to change the political system. The PvdA changed quite a bit.
Parliamentarians were told to ‘get out of The Hague’ at least one day a week. The social democratic politicians tried to reconnect with the Dutch population by actually getting out there. They introduced a permanent campaign and were visible in cities and villages every month, even though there weren’t any elections. This new style was very much appreciated and resulted in a steady 50 seats for the PvdA for the next two years in the weekly opinion polls.
The PvdA in Rotterdam took the internal reforms very seriously as well. The list of candidates for the 2006 elections was almost completely revised and members of the party got to vote for their leader for the first time ever (and chose Peter van Heemst, until then a member of the national parliament). But more importantly, they changed their views on the political situation in Rotterdam as well and embraced the safety measures of the LR/VVD/CDA coalition.
The social democrats of the PvdA did have concerns about the lack of attention for social problems in Rotterdam however. By the end of 2005 poverty had put on the political agenda by the PvdA, which stated that there are about 128,000 people in Rotterdam with a maximum income of 110% of the social minimum. With a total of population of 600,000, this means that 1 out of every 5 people in Rotterdam has problems with paying the rent, gas, water and light, insurance and their daily expenses for food and drink. The PvdA feared that the rise in unemployment numbers, especially among the young in Rotterdam, would further fuel both poverty and criminality rates. Therefore they suggested in their campaign that the focus should not only be on safety, but also on work and school.
Leefbaar Rotterdam and the PvdA clashed on these issues in the media. Marco Pastors, leader of Leefbaar Rotterdam, said that the fact there is a Food Bank in Rotterdam was actually a good thing. ‘We are helping out people in need with this.’ The PvdA disagreed and said that it’s a disgrace that a rich country like the Netherlands is in need of food banks to feed their people. ‘Something has gone seriously wrong if you have to depend on food banks to be able to feed the people in your city,’ said Peter van Heemst.
Another issue that is still very controversial between LR and the PvdA are the views on Islam and immigration. For example, the fact that most dropouts in schools in Rotterdam are of non-Dutch origin led the PvdA to say that the council needed to do something about this particular fact, whereas LR suggests that no specific measures for this group are needed.
The two parties will probably continue to clash until March 7. Both parties are likely to gain quite a few seats; predictions are that a total of about 30 seats (out of 45) will go to the two parties. If both parties end up with approximately the same number of seats, it is not certain what will happen. LR has said they do not want to govern the city together with the PvdA. The PvdA however, has said it wants to keep all options open. Van Heemst: ‘The voter will decide if we have to work together, we will just look into points we can agree on
. Only if there are too many differences, will we turn down cooperation.’