Just three weeks before the September 12 elections, the Socialist Party (SP) was leading Dutch opinion polls with a projected seat share in the high thirties (parliament, the Tweede Kamer, numbers 150). This result promised a sensation: first because it would put the SP (a formerly Maoist party once mainly notorious for pelting opponents with tomatoes and with as yet no national governing experience) in pole position to form the nucleus of a governing coalition for the very first time; second because it would mark a new high in the resurgence of the (broadly speaking) Eurosceptic and anti-austerity radical left within the EU after the June 2012 Greek and French elections. In particular, the projected demise of Mark Rutte’s conservative-liberal VVD government was widely interpreted as yet another (huge) setback for Rutte’s ally and ideological soul-mate Angela Merkel.
However, in large part because of poor debating performances by the SP’s leader Emile Roemer, and a commensurably strong showing by Diederik Samsom, new leader of the social democratic Labour Party (PvdA), the SP’s support has dropped precipitously while Labour and the VVD now vie for first place. While over 40 percent of the electorate remain undecided, and firm projections are risky, the SP looks likely now to gain (at very best) a result near that of 2006 (25 seats and 16.6 percent of the vote). Whereas that earlier result was a breakthrough, against such heightened expectations such a performance this time would look like a major defeat.
The SP’s performance can be looked at as glass half-empty, or one half-full. On one hand, the popularity it maintained throughout 2012 was somewhat deceptive, and arguably always said more about the fracturing of the Dutch party system in general (and the weak performance of Labour in particular) than the SP’s strength – at very best, the SP polled 20 percent precisely at a time when Labour languished in the low teens. The SP and Roemer’s lack of governmental experience could look like a positive in conditions of economic pessimism when most of its competitors (not least Geert Wilders’ right-wing populist Freedom Party, who supported Rutte’s government from 2010-12) had ‘got their hands dirty’, but this political innocence was always a potential liability once power came closer.
On the other hand, even if the SP misses its targets this time round, it will remain a ‘player’, either in coalition discussions or as one of the chief opposition parties. Moreover, many of the long and short-term reasons for the SP’s rise will not quickly dissipate and may even provide the basis for a future resurgence sooner rather than later. These reasons are therefore worth dwelling on.
Among the longer-term reasons, it should be noted that the rise of so-called ‘radical left’ parties across Europe has become increasingly common. Many such parties have shucked off (at least partially) the stigma and strategic constraint of being Soviet satellites, which has allowed them to adapt to national conditions far more effectively – it was after all the Communist parties least controlled by Moscow (e.g. in Italy, Cyprus and Iceland) that often had the largest electoral success. When many social democrats adopted ‘third-way’ policies and essentially neo-liberalised from the late 1990s, this opened up a niche for radical left parties to adopt former social democratic shibboleths, above all neo-Keynesian economics, in order to appeal to those who felt that their parties had abandoned them. While acting as the ‘conscience of the left’, such radical left parties tried to remain committed to systemic transformation beyond mere opposition to neo-liberalism.
However, many such parties have become increasingly pragmatic, de-ideologised and de-radicalised – most apparent in the increasingly common desire to govern. Currently radical left parties are in coalition in five European countries (Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Ukraine) and govern alone in one (Cyprus). The post-2008 financial crisis has been a perfect storm for the radical left: a crisis of neo-liberalism, rising unemployment and latterly failing austerity measures and the travails of the Euro have allowed parties like the Greek Syriza to sharpen and deepen their existing populist critique of the EU as an elite-led neo-liberal project imposing unacceptable sacrifices on an unwitting population. The real surprise of Syriza’s near-victory in June 2012 was not that it happened at all, but that it took so long. Certainly in the first post-crisis years, electorates (however grudgingly) accepted the right’s arguments for belt-tightening to prioritise paying off national debts. No longer.
Nevertheless, the success of the radical left has always had limits. Although they can gain new support from non-voters, protest voters and even right-wing populists (some of the SP’s new electorate comes from the Freedom Party, just as it did from the List Pim Fortuyn in 2006), their predominant recruiting ground is the diverse left; primarily the social democrats but also Greens (it’s notable that the Dutch GreenLeft has polled very poorly since the SP’s latest rise). Yet these votes are always vulnerable if the main social democratic party can demonstrate it is a better ‘useful vote’ to defeat the right – a phenomenon that the rapid repatriation of SP voters to Labour in the last weeks has demonstrated only too well.
Moreover, the radical left still faces a fundamental credibility issue – many may agree that austerity is a disaster, that the EU is elitist and anti-democratic, that inequality and unemployment are reaching unacceptable levels and that neo-liberal policies in general put financial interests before those of ordinary citizens, but does that mean that the radical left can or will change this? No radical left party has governed a large EU state, and the Cypriot communists have hardly demonstrated an ability to turn the tide – after all, they made no complaint in adopting the EU fiscal treaty that imposes penalties if countries’ budget deficits exceed 3 % — ironically, the self-same penalties that Roemer said he would pay ‘over my dead body’. As the SP (like Syriza) has found to its cost – this perception of a lack of economic credibility helps foment fierce criticism from business leaders railing against the party’s ‘irresponsibility’. The Economist’s recent observation that the SP’s ideas are ‘a throwback to the 1970s’ is typical.
Thus, the SP’s prominence is surprising not because is has occurred, but how and when – in particular how a once entirely marginal and extremist Maoist party can now enter governing considerations. Key here is that the party was never Maoist for long – it jettisoned what it calls a ‘flirtation’ in the 1970s. What it has maintained from its Maoist roots is a commitment to a populist ‘mass-line’ and internal organisational centralisation, the combination of which allows it maximum adaptability to the wishes of the electorate with minimum internal disruption. While many less successful radical left parties continue to practice the elitism of formerly vanguard parties and navel-gaze with exegesis from Marxist classics, the SP always focussed on being a campaigning organisation focused on practical problems and moving through the masses ‘like a fish through water’, building up local roots and organisations long before it had a national presence.
This ‘closeness to the common people’ has allowed it to adopt some non-traditional points of view – in particular an opposition to unregulated immigration that has seen it labelled as ‘nationalist’ (not least by the left), but allows it to present itself as defending Dutch national interests. Indeed, the party is largely autonomous in international affairs, not joining the network of organisations (such as the European Left Party) that increasingly bind parties like Syriza to a common project.
Simultaneously, organisational centralisation has survived the fall of communism to this day. Dan Keith of Sussex University has identified how the SP leadership (primarily the executive committee and a small leadership cadre, long dominated by Jan Marijnissen) simultaneously maintains a tight control over policy-making and personnel and a large mass membership. Centralisation has allowed the party to change its line dramatically without incurring many of the fissures that often convulse the radical left. For instance, according to Dutch political scientist Gerrit Voerman, the SP de-Leninised in the late 1980s and de-socialised in the late 1990s (current documents hardly ever mention socialism). By the late 2000s it can be regarded as ‘de-populising’ in as much as its populist opposition to the establishment (if not its focus on the plight of the ordinary person) has significantly softened as the SP has envisaged a governing role. The party was able to drop more radical policies (like abolition of the Dutch royal family and NATO) without obvious internal problems.
Also integral to the party’s success was an early professionalisation – awareness of the power of marketing and branding, almost uniquely among similar parties. The party engaged image consultants to develop its distinctive tomato logo, distributed multiple local papers, developed complex party websites and a diverse party shop, and backed these up with multiple attention-seeking initiatives (such as distributing tomato soup and tomato sorbet to voters).
Finally, the SP has long valued having a strong figurehead (not always a characteristic of the radical left!) From 1988 until 2008, Jan Marijnissen was the SP’s main face. Marijnissen reinforced the SP’s populism with his very ordinariness. He proved undoubtedly charismatic (with his personal popularity exceeding the SP’s), by combining an earthy man-of-the-people humour with a belligerent anti-elite stance; he was also a strong debater who could present himself as statesmanlike. Until recently, Roemer was a similar asset: affable (ever-smiling), likeable and humorous, and like Marijnissen with a provincial background and a trace of dialect. However, the debates showed up a lack of attention to policy detail and combativeness – in a thoroughly unflattering interview in the Telegraaf newspaper, he admitted he had been taken aback by the ferocity of the debates. Overall, the campaign has reinforced existing suspicions that Roemer is not tough or experienced enough to be true heavy-weight, prime ministerial material. Samsom has profited most from this.
Currently, the SP stands at a cross-roads. It has moderated its policies to such an extent that it is barely a radical left populist party opposing capitalism, still less the ‘far left’ or ‘extremist’ party that right-wing media sometimes contends. The SP’s differences with Labour have narrowed to those of degree, not kind.
The SP is far more critical of the EU to be sure: it would repatriate more powers to the Netherlands, wants to reform the European Central Bank to promote employment, and wants more EU policies subject to national referendum, but it is still committed to reducing the national budget deficit to under 3% by 2015, alongside minor stimulus measures. It no longer opposes the Euro, although it certainly opposes further bailouts to save the currency (preferring debt-forgiveness instead).
Nationally, the party opposes the rise in the retirement age from 65 to 67 before 2020 and would increase tax rates on those earning over 150,000 Euros from 52% to 65%. However, Labour itself supports the EU focusing on employment issues via Eurobonds and a financial transaction tax, argues that the 3% deficit limit should be imposed gradually, supports a retirement age rise to 67 only by 2025 and a high-end tax rise to 60%, so the policy gaps between the two parties are large but not a chasm.
Increasingly the SP appears a left-wing, moderately Eurosceptic, social-democratic party, albeit with a specific focus on extra-parliamentary activity and localism. This approach has made a governing coalition with Labour increasingly possible, but has simultaneously increased the inter-transferability of each party’s vote. The SP’s flexible ideology would not necessarily preclude a return to greater radicalism in future, but it is increasingly clear that its supporters want the party to govern.
A burning question as the election reaches its final stages is whether the SP, once the heir apparent, will miss this governing inheritance entirely. With the electorate so divided, multiple cross-party and trans-ideological coalitions are a must. Labour increasingly looks like the kingmaker, able to join a right-leaning coalition with the VVD (possibly a revised ‘purple coalition’ including the social-liberal D66) or help forge a left-leaning one with the SP, GreenLeft, D66 and others (although the numbers may not suffice for this). Each option offers the SP opportunities and threats.
The first would be disastrous for it in the short-term given its aspirations and would probably mark a swift end to Roemer’s short leadership. However, such a government’s likely commitment to fiscal discipline might only help the SP in the longer term as the leading party of opposition. The latter option faces numerous practical obstacles (not least the Europhilism of the SP’s potential partners), but would mark a highpoint in the SP’s national influence. Whether the SP would be able to complete the transition from populism to pragmatism, or even to fundamentally impact the policy of any new coalition, is moot, but more immediately it would be a major way to spin what now looks like a dispiriting defeat as an inspiring victory.