The Progressive Post

Major trust issues in the Netherlands: why not trying feminism for a change

FEPS YAN European Progressive Geopolitics, Vice President PES-Rainbow Rose
05/12/2023

When asked to write a piece about the Dutch national elections, the first theme to pop up in my mind was ‘bestaanszekerheid’, which translates as livelihood security. It was the former leader of the PvdA, Lodewijk Asscher, who re-coined the term in his campaign a couple of years ago, now the former Christian-Democrat Pieter Omtzigt (New Social Contract) successfully claimed the term to his own merit. However, migration policies became the decisive reasons most Dutch voted for the extreme-right ideas of Geert Wilders. 

Part of the discussion about livelihood security is the issue of political trust and good governance. Politicians have always had a problem with upholding a trustworthy reputation. But Pieter Omtzigt was the central figure who uncovered that the Tax Authority used harsh and racist investigation methods towards families. By uncovering this policy, downright fear became a major part of the already shaky relationship between citizens and their government. The huge debts families were confronted with caused domestic violence, extreme stress, suicides, divorces and even the out-of-home placement of 2,090 children. Another scandal was the decennia of blatant lies towards the Province of Groningen, where the state drilled for gas and in doing so caused earthquakes, collapsing grounds, and severe damage to houses, which, oftentimes, made them unliveable. Compensations for the damages were not given out quickly enough, making rebuilding trust a painful and embarrassing exercise. This demise of political culture, added to the plain hate and online verbal abuse towards politicians, mainly women, caused a large efflux from political public life right after the already wobbly cabinet fell over migration issues. 

But it was migration that became, above all other issues, the decisive topic for the Dutch electorate. With Omtzigt forming his new party, during several weeks, the struggle seemed to be between him and the new leader of the liberals (VVD), Dilan Yesilgöz, leaving Frans Timmermans of the Greens and Social-Democrats at third place. Succeeding Mark Rutte at the head of the VVD, Yesilgöz easily moved her way to the top of the polls. Being of Turkish descent but nevertheless strict on migration, she was the typical hard-working and never-complaining woman, but never claimed to use her gender in her campaign – exactly how the right-wing Dutch like it –, accustomed to brushing off accusations of blatant sexism as feminist nonsense. To become the first female prime minister, she also announced that she would not exclude the far-right Geert Wilders from negotiations to form a coalition. Where Rutte had always kept that door firmly closed, Yesilgöz restored Wilders as a bona fide coalition partner. 

Wilders and Timmermans then started to rise in the polls. Wilders went on framing himself as the ‘milder’ right-winger he was before, by putting his anti-Islam points on hold. Timmermans adapted his message to be the only alternative to a new right-wing government and even included a ‘week of feminism’ during the campaign. The Green MP Corinne Ellemeet presented her new abortion law, claiming it might be the last opportunity to do so. When Wilders and Timmermans supplanted Yesilgöz at the first place in the polls, she suddenly stated that Wilders would be a very difficult partner to work with, seemingly closing the coalition doors again. This made right-wing voters jump to Wilders for good, taking a dozen new seats with them. This resulted in Wilders’ party ending up with 37 seats, Timmermans’ with 25 and Yesilgöz’ with 24. Overall, the representation of women in parliament declined. At the moment of writing, the door stands open for Wilders to become Prime Minister, who said during elections night on television that he aims to put an end to the ‘asylum tsunami’ and to put ‘the Dutch first’. 

Political scandals such as the childcare subsidies debacle, institutional racism and blatant sexism towards female politicians all seemed to have vanished into the background. Migration turned out to be the main concern of the largest part of the electorate. Several of my left-wing friends started analysing the fact that a large part of the younger and middle-class electorate, notably also those with a migration background, voted for Wilders. It was almost as if this analysis was a coping mechanism to make their loss bearable. Feminists, however, saw their worries confirmed, for it was mainly men openly proclaiming their extreme right-wing position in the media. For me, a feminist with expertise in Conflict and War Studies, this meant the most important signal that our democracy has been damaged and will be under threat for a longer time. 

In most of the campaign, women’s rights have not been picked up as much as they should have. In my view, even on the left, half of the constituency had not received equal attention in the party manifestos. The overall issue of women’s place in society was rarely discussed. Yesilgöz, after the current finance minister Sigrid Kaag from the socio-liberal D66 party last year, was the second woman who had realistic chances to become the first female prime minister of the Netherlands. Where Kaag’s team used this to attract a large feminist electorate to her party, Yesilgöz mostly denied the characteristic, claiming her other qualities were far more significant for the job. In doing so, she denied having a female political persona: that she could become prime minister not because of her womanhood, but despite it. But, while she had apparently overcome her femininity, she constantly kept using it implicitly. The nickname ‘pit bull in high heels’ makes her almost macho image very vivid. By stating that despite the extremely feminine trait of wearing high heels – an impediment in one’s daily functioning, depriving the woman from being able to walk faster than a man, and hence keeping her behind –, she made clear that she definitely is an aggressive, go-getter animal, highly able to function in the real, albeit masculine, political world, feeling no need to address the root causes of gender inequality. 

We know that societies with greater gender equality, and which actively include women in spaces of power, are more democratic, transparent and peaceful societies. Not naming women’s rights, not naming several abuses like gender injustices, provokes gender-blindness and counterproductive policies. It silences the voice of women and diverts away from solving real problems: not only femicide, Me Too, the pay gap and reproductive health care. But in the light of our scandals, and in particular the one on childcare benefits, these subsidies providing access to children’s day-care should have made women economically more independent, and not the victims of domestic abuse. There is no possible way to restore political trust if we do not call more than half of our constituency by its name: women. We have an international conservative backlash with, at its core, an attack on women’s rights. But despite this context, several progressive parties have failed to bring women’s rights verbatim to the forefront.

Choices have to be made in any campaign. But during the 2023 campaign, Dutch parties seem to have forgotten women’s rights as a bigger, systemic issue. Emancipative issues that have been made a little more visible were LGBT rights and anti-racism, which, however, have their basis in feminism and deconstructing the patriarchal society. The best permanent campaign for the left would be to promote gender equality all the time. Treating women as a side issue stops us from thinking about real system change. Truly involving women makes our democracy much more resilient against anti-democratic and anti-rights extremities.

Photo credits: Shutterstock.com/Hung Chung Chih

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