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As part of our special series The Europopulists, the Financial Times collaborated with Algemeen Dagblad, the Netherlands’ biggest daily newspaper, to ask Dutch residents whether they have seen political attitudes change in their neighbourhoods. We received more than 200 submissions from residents of more than 100 towns across the country.
A few trends emerged from the responses: many who wrote in had noticed a rise in populist sentiment or were shifting that way themselves. Some felt that the political landscape was too fragmented, with 28 parties on the ballot, many of which were single-issue.
A lot of respondents described themselves as “floating voters” who planned to decide how they will vote strategically, based on election-day polling. And though many respondents from rural areas expressed concern about immigrants and assimilation, the vast majority of those who had direct interactions with refugees described their experience in very positive terms.
Here is a snapshot of the responses — those who took part requested varying levels of anonymity.
Frustration with politics
Carla has lived in Eindhoven, the country’s fifth-largest city, for her entire life. She has seen a clear shift in political preference over the past decade.
● People are angry at the elite in The Hague. They do not feel heard. This will cause them to cast a protest vote for [anti-immigration candidate Geert] Wilders. I am voting for Wilders. Hopefully he will not be prime minister, but I definitely consider it an opportunity to put the elite in The Hague in its place. I have always been a steadfast [centre-right] VVD voter, but that’s over now because of the breach of promises by the VVD. Something has to change in The Hague. It is time that they listen to the population.
An administrator in Rotterdam expressed a similar view.
● Unlike 20 years ago, I have lost all political preference. National politics has become an independent bubble and has nothing to do with the everyday life nor the furious Dutch society.
Entrepreneur Ronald Smallenburg, who lives in multicultural Amsterdam, has seen a growing trend of voters reacting against populist sentiment. Mr Smallenburg is a longtime member of the progressive pro-EU party D66.
● I see a slowly growing countermovement from people who are increasingly annoyed by the populist right and want to do something to resist it: respond in the media, demonstrations, debates. I see this both in my city and across the country. Over the past few weeks, I have noticed that [Mr Wilders’ Party for Freedom] PVV is slowly falling in the polls and growing outrage about the PVV has increased. It may be that I exist in the Amsterdam bubble where I never encounter PVV voters. It is also possible that Brexit and [US President Donald] Trump have strengthened this development. More and more people are tired of the polarisation.
Effect of the media
Thijs, a caterer and computer repairman, lives in the small village of Koudekerke. Koudekerke sits in the Netherlands’ Bible Belt, a strip of land that runs diagonally across the country and is home to a predominantly conservative Calvinist population.
● The church has a clear influence here and that is reflected in the voting. The small Christian parties have the upper hand, but the PVV has started to grow. Though hardly any Muslims live here, people see Islam as a threat. There is a fear that increased immigration will lessen the influence of their church and that scares them.
I feel this change came about 10 years ago with the rise of social media. Suddenly, people were reading news reports about incidents elsewhere, when hitherto their news remained local. After the banking crisis, when homes’ values fell significantly here and many jobs were lost in the nearby industrial town of Vlissingen-Oost, there was a clear shift to the right.
There has been a crisis shelter here. For a few days, there were refugees from Syria. There has not been any nuisance and both the residents and the refugees have had a positive experience.
René Romer, a marketing adviser born and raised in Rotterdam, believes the media’s portrayal of diversity is increasing polarisation.
● I was born in Rotterdam in 1959. Rotterdam was still a white city. Now Rotterdam is a city where the majority has its roots outside the Netherlands. These changes have gone so terribly fast that it inevitably brings tensions with it, but I see that these tensions are often whipped up enormously by the media. Last December, I accompanied a group of students from the hotel school in Maastricht. They were tasked with finding out how entrepreneurs in this city are responding to its multicultural society. They were stunned. In the media these students heard mostly negativity about multiculturalism, but in the two days they spent in Rotterdam, they saw the convenience, flexibility and naturalness with which shops, restaurants and other businesses operate, and how they also profit from this superdiversity. It gave them a totally different perspective.
What is very clear is that politics and media as a whole are not mirroring the multicultural society which people of Rotterdam experience daily. Politics and media are whiter than white. The gap between the Dutch media and the Dutchman is massive.
Retired physiotherapist Jeanette lives in Molenwaard, a rural town in South Holland also in the Bible Belt, and believes the economic dislocation caused by globalisation and the eurozone crisis has sparked support for nationalism and populism.
● This has always been a conservative Christian environment, but I have seen my neighbourhood swing right. It is more nationalistic, about putting our own people first. Many [orthodox Calvinist] SGP voters also welcome Trump’s ideas. Because there have been so many job cuts in large regional steel and shipbuilding companies people are looking at which political party will do something for them. They also feel the threat of terrorism and think that the government is doing too little to tackle it. These things have led to a certain feeling that they have to take matters into their own hands.
Dirk Buningh is a ferryman from the tiny village of Velsen-Zuid, population 930. He also cites globalisation, which has brought foreign workers into the country to work in major industries, as a cause of political upheaval.
● Tata Steel is one of the largest employers in this region. There have been people with non-Dutch backgrounds working here since the 1970s. Now that the number of employees are falling, the “original” inhabitants look at the others with suspicion and jealousy.
I myself live on a ship. I am currently, despite the presence of gravity, a floating voter. I say vote with your mind, not your emotion. Otherwise you will need a psychologist after the elections to keep your emotions in check.
Concerns around immigration
A respondent working in healthcare describes Turkish protests, which became national news in the Netherlands in July, as having an affect on her political views. She lives in Zwijndrecht, a suburban area south of Rotterdam.
● Ten years ago, I was more trusting — I thought the integration of Muslims would go well here. I did not begrudge anyone his or her existence in our beautiful country. But I now know that for many Muslims, this integration will not happen. As an example, there were big Turkish demonstrations in Rotterdam to protest the [attempted] coup in Turkey [in July]. Demonstrating Turks who have been living for years or were born here, I found frightening. They seem to feel absolutely no affinity with the Netherlands.
A Muslim postal worker living on the outskirts of Amsterdam in Nieuw-Vennep says she also notices a new tension between communities, saying she now feels less welcome.
● At the last municipal and national elections, we saw great support for PVV. That means, bluntly, that several neighbours and other people who live in our street who kindly greet us vote for the party that wants to see us leave.
I’m a white leftist elite, but I’m also Muslim. I worry about increasing polarisation. Will my kids, with tinted appearance and foreign names, have a fair chance? Can they live in the Netherlands, where they and I were born and raised? And if not, we only have Dutch nationality. Where should we go?
Bert Lock, a schoolteacher, lives in the town of Papendrecht, in South Holland. His school has had a more positive experience with migrants and refugees.
● Papendrecht has always been a refugee village. In my school, the classrooms have about 20% foreign children from 20 nationalities. There is never one dominant minority group, but instead a bit of everything. They usually do not speak each other’s language and rely on Dutch. Refugee children are often very motivated. We are generally pleased with them.
Last year, our town received about 50 refugee families [status holders]. The children are mostly from Syria, with a few from Eritrea. The parents are all good people, very motivated to take courses in Dutch themselves. Because Papendrecht has extensive experience with refugees, the arrival of these people has been almost noiseless.
Leni is a manager from Lage Zwaluwe, a small village in the southern Netherlands. It has a population of 4,209. She argues that the Dutch have forgotten just how good they have things.
● In this town, nothing happens. Life moves on. One day, the police came to tell us that our neighbour’s outdoor chairs had been stolen. Now we have a WhatsApp group, where we inform each other when something happens. People act scared, though in reality we live in a safety bubble. With the rise of [assassinated populist leader] Pim Fortuyn, people have become aware of potential fear. I do not know who said this, but it is applicable to the Netherlands: fear is like rabbits. It nests and starts multiplying.
When it rains, we keep our feet dry, the infrastructure is good, everybody has healthcare. The biggest issue during election time is a question of our identity. This is pure luxury.
Are you from the Netherlands? Share your thoughts on the upcoming election in the comments field below.
Additional research and translation by Milo van Bokkum