Geert Wilders may have got the most international press coverage in the run up to the Dutch election, but – with 28 parties running – his was far from the only story.
‘This year, the spectrum of political parties was even more splintered than usual,’ said Politico Europe, ‘there was one party for people aged over 50, another for animals, and even one for non-voters’.
One of the many smaller parties that won seats in the lower house on March 15 was DENK, a ‘pro-immigrant’ party set up by two former Labour party (PvdA) politicians, Selçuk Öztürk and Tunahan Kuzu ( pictures below).
Denk means ‘think’ in Dutch, and ‘equal’ or ‘balanced’ in Turkish.
Running on a platform condemning xenophobia and racism, DENK presented itself as a kind of antidote to the anti-Islam rhetoric of parties like Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV), which want to ban the Koran and close down mosques, which Wilders has called ‘Nazi Temples’.
According to DutchNews.nl, 40% of Dutch Turks and 34% of Dutch Moroccans planned to vote for DENK; they won 3 seats in the recent ballot.
In an attempt to win back voters from the PVV, many traditionally centrist parties hardened their stance on immigration. This trend has normalised Wilders’ anti-Islam narrative, said De Morgen (Belgium), who recently published a report by the Netherlands Bar Association showing that 5 of the 13 main parties ‘advocated measures that contravene the rule of law’.
In response to the increasingly hard-line ‘nativist and isolationist positions’, said The New York Times,DENK advocated for the implementation of a “racism register” to name elected officials who use hate speech, build a Dutch Slavery Museum, and put a stop to the annual Zwarte Piet celebration, during which people put on black make-up and dress up as Father Christmas’ servant, Black Pete.
In the same paper, Sandrew Hira, director of the International Institute for Scientific Research said DENK had ‘struck a chord with people who feel there’s no voice in Parliament that speaks on their behalf. They are an ethnic voice that takes up the struggle and the demands of the communities of the people of colour.’
But DENK’s rise has not been free of controversy, said Chris Van Dijk on openDemocracy.net.
Their polarising policies and claims of media bias have played into the hands of the Freedom Party by lending legitimacy to Wilders’ argument that ‘a foreign Islamic force is trying to undermine [Holland’s] liberal values’.
And the “racism register” policy and the Black Pete debate are examples of blatant political pandering that ‘distract from the actual racism ingrained in society’.
As well as several high profile controversial incidents involving the party leadership, their refusal to condemn the Erdogan regime in Turkey has led to DENK being labelled as ‘the other side of the coin of the extreme right’ said Van Dijk, which has only served to undermine their desire for ‘a more tolerant and inclusive Holland’.
Tunahan Kuzu has declared that ‘the extreme right is a greater foe to democracy than Islamic terrorism’, and last year he refused to shake hands with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu.
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Despite this, having DENK deputies in parliament feels like a kind of reassurance for those who fear the rising current of Islamophobia in Holland.
Dutch-Turkish blogger Tayfun Balçik – quoted in NRC Handelsblad – wrote: ‘for Dutch natives, it’s almost impossible to understand what it means for us to be able to make our voices heard. For the first time, Dutch people of immigrant origins are resolutely defending their interests’.
But despite giving a voice to the ethnic minorities who feel unsafe in Holland, argued Van Dijk, DENK has failed to live up to its potential:
‘The sad thing is that their outrage is a real thing; political discourse has hardened, but this discourse desperately needed a voice of unification, not an opposing voice of division.’
‘Minorities from different ethnic backgrounds showed their uneasiness with the situation in the Netherlands by voting for us,’ said Kuzu after the election results were announced.
‘We need to love the Netherlands as much as we love our homeland.’