Gender, racial, ethnic, and religious diversity popped up as key issues during the 2021 Dutch election campaign. This was new.
Never before have there been so many interviews and analyses in the mainstream media about diversity in politics. Never before did so many parties take part in the elections that were led by women – 10 out of 37. Never before have there been so many women MPs and candidates across the political spectrum explicitly addressing the structural online sexism and misogyny they experience on a daily basis.
Not since the suffragettes, who campaigned for decades for women’s voting rights, have activists been so focused on diversifying parliament.
Increased awareness of the structural overrepresentation of white men in Dutch politics is fuelled by international – intersectional - feminism and the Black Lives Matter movement. This buzz seems to have had at least some effect on the outcome of the Dutch elections in that the newly elected parliament is more diverse than the previous one.
Additionally, three ‘firsts’ entered the Dutch national political arena: the first transgender MP, the first Black woman party leader and the first woman MP wearing a hijab. We will discuss the profiles of these politicians and the significance of their election, but first let us start with some context and trends.
The lead-up to the elections
The Netherlands has been heavily affected by the global Covid-19 pandemic. To heed the Covid-19 regulations, most notably the 1.5-metre social distancing rule, voting was spread out over three days.
Citizens could also vote by mail. As always, in-person voters found a red pencil in the voting booth to indicate their choice on the ballot form, but this time they had to take it home.
By the time the elections took place, the ruling government had already resigned over the so-called ‘child benefits scandal.’ As many as 26,000 parents were wrongly accused of fraud by the tax authorities and required to pay back child allowances they had received.
The scandal also revealed institutional racism, as the tax authority admittedly targeted parents with foreign names or dual nationality.
The role of gender in the campaign
The record number of women party leaders increased interest in the experiences of women politicians.
The Dutch weekly De Groene Amsterdammer published an investigative article entitled 'Misogyny as a political weapon'. In line with recent scholarship about violence against women in politics (most notably in the recent book Violence against Women in Politics by Professor Mona Lena Krook) the report showed that also Dutch women politicians have assumed that receiving online hate is "the cost of doing politics".
They remained silent, not wanting to "complain" and thereby seem too weak for politics. The data in the piece demonstrates that 10% of all tweets directed at women politicians contain hate or aggression.
This kickstarted a nationwide discussion. Furthermore, it showed which of the politicians have been most targeted in absolute terms (Sigrid Kaag, party leader of social-liberal party Democrats 66 [D66]) and in relative terms (Kauthar Bouchallikht, number 9 on the list of the Green Party).
Overall trends in the election outcome
Under the leadership of the resigned prime minister Mark Rutte the conservative-liberal party VVD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) won the election for a fourth time in a row with 34 seats.
Second place went to D66 with 24 seats; the third to the populist radical-right party PVV (Party for Freedom) with 17 seats; the Christian-democratic party CDA (Christian Democratic Appeal) with 15 seats.
These four big parties are followed by some smaller parties, like the Green Left, the Socialist Party, the Social Democrats and several parties with 1 or 3 seats. In total, 17 different parties won seats in the elections.
The large number of parties leaves the Dutch House of Representatives heavily fragmented which – at the time of writing – does not facilitate government formation.
Diversity in Dutch politics
White men historically dominate Western parliaments worldwide, including in the Netherlands.
In the late 1980s, the Dutch parliament became more diverse when slowly but surely MPs with a migration background entered the parliament. Since 2003, MPs with a ‘non-Western’ migration- and post-colonial background (ethnic/racial minorities hereafter) have been represented in the Dutch parliament roughly equal to their share of the population, between 10 and 12%.
Compared to other European immigration countries, the Netherlands has one of the longest and percentage wise strongest representation of MPs with a migration background. But compared to previous parliamentary sessions the share of minority MPs was low during the last period (2017-2021), partly due to the loss of the social democrats.
In the recent elections, 28 ethnic/racial minority MPs have been elected. The number of women MPs just increased a little, from 36 to 39%.
Several ‘firsts’ made their way into the parliament. Lisa van Ginneken is the first transgender MP. She was sworn in on 31st of March 2021, which also happens to be the International Transgender Day of Visibility. Van Ginneken hoisted the transgender flag in front of the parliament that day.
Kauthar Bouchallikht, 26 years old with Moroccan roots, is the first MP to wear a hijab.
She has been heavily attacked on (social) media for being a former board member of ‘Femyso’, an Islamic youth organisation.
Lastly, Sylvana Simons won one seat with her anti-racist party BIJ1. That makes her the first Black and first Black woman party leader in the Dutch parliament. Similar to Bouchallikht, Simons’ participation in the elections was accompanied by disproportionally negative media attention, threats, and hate comments online.
On the day that Simons’ was sworn in, she wore a facemask with the flag of Surinam, former Dutch colony and her birth country. Just before the inauguration a group of supporters performed an Afro-Surinamese religious ritual in Simons’ presence to give her strength.
Cause for cautious optimism
The three ‘firsts’ mark a new era of Dutch politics. Their presence has the potential to empower individuals and groups with whom they share background characteristics and/or those who identify with a group that is historically underrepresented.
Additionally, these ‘firsts’ can function as catalysts to break with the image of the stereotypical Dutch politician. As ‘firsts’ they will receive most political and societal resistance, but this process will pave the way for the next generation of political aspirants and candidates that do not (yet) fit the standard profile of a politician. Parallel to this development, there is much push-back against diversity by a relatively high number of MPs representing a populist radical right party (29 in total).
The increase of diversity in the Dutch parliament is reason for cautious optimism. Cautious, because, as we have learned from the past, diversity is not a given and can be easily undone in the next elections. To remain diverse and get closer to gender equity, investments are needed to make newly elected women and/or sexual, ethnic, racial or religious minority MPs flourish. This requires a change in political culture to ban misogyny, sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination and exclusion.
Only the future can tell if Dutch politics is ready to invest in an inclusive parliament.
Liza Mügge is associate professor in political science at the University of Amsterdam and 2020-2021 Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the Social Science Center Berlin (WZB). Zahra Runderkamp is PhD candidate in political science at the University of Amsterdam.
Banner image: A ballot paper for the Netherlands House of Representatives in 2021. Source: Sebastiaan ter Berg / Flickr