Fallow Ground A City of Workers Turns to Wilders
Part 2: 'Many Here Vote for Wilders'
Brick row houses line the street where Kjell van der Lee lives with his family, each of them narrow and with a tiny back yard just wide enough for a discarded refrigerator and a few cases of beer. Van der Lee is a 32-year-old construction worker and his dog is named "Shadow."
"I can afford the rent here. Many vote for Wilders, as do I. I'd be happy even if he only does 10 percent of what he says he will. If he gets the chance. Our taxes keep rising and the retirement age keeps going up. They're letting me work myself to death so they can give the money to them. These dual-national criminals. One of their nationalities should be taken away. Shadow! Don't worry, he only bites if something is unfamiliar."
Rem Koolhaas, the Netherlands' most influential architect, designed Almere's city center. He separated areas of life like living, walking around, driving and shopping into different levels. Above the stores, a level of social housing is connected by footbridges and passages.
The cry of seagulls fills the air and lounge music emanates from the rooftop of the shopping center. A giant Utopolis sign is lit up on the multiplex cinema. From above, viewed from inside the new library, the people down below resemble elements in an architectural model. A couple of young coworkers chat as they walk out of the food court. Stevie Verduijn, 20 years old, and Gideon Halberland, two years her senior, are both hairstylists. She's originally from Amsterdam and he hails from from Hilversum.
"Everything here looks clean, but you constantly get harassed if you look even a little bit different." -- "We're supposed to show tolerance to the Africans. Fine. But they don't try to understand us." -- "There are bad vibes here. Recently they threw stones at buses." -- "We were mugged once at the bus stop. They took Gideon's iPhone and a girlfriend was groped all over the place. We weren't alone, but nobody said anything." -- "That was the worst thing. Who am I voting for? PVV." -- "Me too. Wilders is saying what everyone is thinking but no one dares to say. I like that." -- "He says extreme things to provoke others, so that you can recognize the extremists and send them away. His hair cut? It's dead hair if you ask me. It's been bleached too often."
Holland Didn't Become Less Liberal Overnight
"The Netherlands didn't suddenly become less liberal," says Ton Nijhuis, director of the Duitsland Instituut in Amsterdam, an organization that facilitates Dutch-German networks and exchanges. "Pim Fortuyn, a predecessor of Wilders, always said he was defending our freedom against the intolerance and premodern thinking of many immigrants. Today, it can be dangerous in some neighborhoods to show yourself as obviously gay or Jewish, and this is not seldom due to Moroccan youth."
Nijhuis thinks there's been a blind spot in the political landscape in past years. Most voters, he says, have more conservative values than the established parties. "They are also more supportive of redistributing wealth than of globalization. They long to return to the imaginary good old days when people behaved themselves and could trust their neighbors. It's this fallow political soil in which Wilders thrives."
In Germany, Nijhuis says, people often think that the only problem is Geert Wilders. "They overlook the fact that enthusiasm for Europe also isn't particularly pronounced among the established political parties either. For us Dutch, Europe is mostly a free market, not something we are passionate about."
The city of Almere is located up to nine meters below the sea level, which is about the level of John de Vaal's political mood. Together with his son Nick, the 52-year-old cleans the shop windows in the pedestrian zone directly across from City Hall. At least when he's working, he can be his own master.
"I'm not going to vote. It doesn't have any effect anyway. Wilders is also just a big mouth. None of them know what is ailing the workers. There are good things and bad things about each party, and they have to work together. It's always a compromise. And nothing changes. That's the problem in Holland. They sit in The Hague and when there are elections, they come out with their flyers, but after that they disappear. Crime is a major problem in Almere. It looks clean here, but it isn't clean. Last week, there were five break-in attempts at homes on our street. I have lived in Almere for 24 years. Back then, I fled from the crime in Amsterdam. Back then it was good here. It's not just the Moroccans who are creating the problems. It's also the Dutch, who allow their kids to hang around the streets at night because they are too busy with their jobs."
The city of Almere was tailored with social mindedness and fairness in mind, for active citizens. It is also a monument to Dutch social democracy. Which makes it all the more bitter that the PVDA only managed a minority coalition in the municipality, together with the Socialist Party and the center-right.
'Votes for Wilders Are Cries for Help'
But since the 1990s, the PVDA has been focused on the same kind of cuts to the social-welfare system that made Germany's Social Democrats highly unpopular among voters. Slick politicians like Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the snazzy finance minister and president of the Euro Group, are the face of the party. "They are management types with perfect speeches and perfect suits. They would never allow themselves to be seen with a coffee stain on their shirt. Why should the people trust them?" That's what a leading member of the party says off the record.
There have been instances, he says, of Labor Party-led city councils advising people to just move away if they had problems with overly pious Muslim neighbors. Nor did it help that the social workers said it was the peoples' duty to be patient with the new arrivals. They laid the blame on those who had actually been behaving correctly, the leading party member says.
That made people angry. If you make just 15,000 euros a year, you can't simply pick up and move. Such people have the right to be protected. "So they are disappointed. They feel abandoned and they have realized that no one is listening to them. Voting for Wilders is a cry for help."
The social democrat's party is currently polling at under 10 percent.
Ria Faaij is the 58-year-old owner of a lotto and tobacco shop in the center of Almere Haven.
"Everyone comes to my shop and they all talk. I hear everything - complaints about debtor aid, welfare, unemployment. There are all kinds of problems in the Netherlands. My mother is 90 years old now. She paid into the pension system for 42 years. Now she gets a cleaner for three hours once every two weeks, after so many years of hard work. The parties talk a lot, but nothing happens. Who am I going to vote for? The Party for the Animals. Animals are the most honest of creatures."
There's no five-percent hurdle in the Netherlands for gaining seats in parliament. The country's party system is increasingly starting to look like a bazaar of special interests. Currently, 11 parties are represented in the Dutch House of Representatives. Some 80 parties registered for the election, of which 28 were approved, including two parties representing senior citizens, the Party for the Animals (which is running at about 4 percent in the polls) and two for the Christians.
There is a "Party of Non-Voters" that is seeking to attract voters by promising to do what it promises to do. There's Europe's first party of immigrants, the DENK movement. It is demanding quotas for immigrants on boards, an anti-racism police and equal treatment for Koran schools. No other party is seeking to advance the multicultural approach to such an extent.
Elfriede Brown says she won't be voting for that party, insisting that she is too much of an "old-fashioned Dutch woman" for that. She has just finished her shopping - a package of cinnamon tea is peaking out of her basket - and her hair is a maze of braids all tied back with a white scarf.
During the 1970s, Suriname, Holland's colony on the border to Brazil, established its independence. Many of them retained their Dutch passports and moved to the Netherlands, with quite a few landing in social housing in southeastern Amsterdam. In 1992, an Israeli 747 jet crashed into a high-rise apartment building in the area and Brown, who is 61 today, lost her apartment in the disaster. That's what brought her to Almere.
"I was born as a Dutch girl in Suriname. Dutch is my mother tongue. I don't think about skin or hair color. My neighbors are Muslim, but they say that the Koran is a message of love. That may be. I'm a Christian and I vote for the Christian Union party. The way that Wilders preaches hate against the Muslims isn't good. It's possible that many of my acquaintances are voting for him. But they don't admit it. Me, me, me and I don't care about anybody else: That's the attitude. Foreigners are not given any preferential treatment when it comes to the allocation of apartments. I know this because I worked for a residential building firm for 35 years. It really angers me when people here believe these untruths."
In polls last week, Geert Wilders was in a virtual tie with incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte's VVD, but his lead appears to be shrinking as the vote approaches. Given that every other party has ruled out the possibility of a coalition government with Wilders' PVV, the next government will likely be another centrist coalition - just as in Almere. Precisely the kind of government many in the Netherlands no longer want.
The city of Almere was a dream the Netherlands once had for itself. The sea had been reclaimed, things had been carefully planned and the community at large had been governed pragmatically. Now the area has once again become fallow ground, only this time politically. The ties between the parties and to the church have been loosened. Everything has become more fluid and things are beginning to shift.
What remains is the old hope that the dikes will hold.
- Part 1: A City of Workers Turns to Wilders
- Part 2: 'Many Here Vote for Wilders'