Fallow Ground A City of Workers Turns to Wilders
The city of Almere, once crafted as a Dutch utopia on land reclaimed from the sea, used to be a center-left stronghold. Now, though, as voters in the Netherlands go to the polls on Wednesday, the town's support is behind right-wing populist Geert Wilders. What changed?
Shortly after 1 p.m. on May 28, 1932, the last gap of the dike was closed and around 1,500 square kilometers of land was reclaimed from the North Sea. With the help of pumping stations, locks, drain channels and dams, a new province was created.
The draining of the Zuiderzee was one of the greatest engineering achievements of the past century. For Dutch national pride, it was the equivalent of the Eiffel Tower or the Apollo space program. But better: It resulted in arable land. The Dutch continued shoveling and, in 1971, completed the construction of an entire city: Almere, a Dutch utopia that is today home to just under 200,000 residents. The city's motto is "anything goes," and that's pretty much what has happened.
If a model railroad enthusiast were hired to design a city, Almere is what the result might look like. There are car-free areas of the city that are named after flowers, fish species or cinematic legends. There are networks of bicycle and bus routes along with small community centers on seemingly every corner, dedicated to gezelligheid, the Dutch take on communal well-being, with billiards, bingo, folk dance and even half-marathons, depending on one's proclivities. It's a place where every neighborhood has its own library, church and shopping mall, and where senior citizens buzz around silently on electric scooters. The buses are on-time and cost nothing. Everything seems to work well.
Why, then, is there so much anger? Why are so many people in this ideal city so upset about everything? So upset that they already voted to make Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom (PVV) the biggest party on the city council? They are likely to do the same on Wednesday, when the the Netherlands holds parliamentary elections - a vote that many in Europe are watching with deep concern.
What is it that the people of Almere want?
Viewed from the north, Almere initially resembles a playground of experimental architecture - gaudily colored, angular and anarchic, some buildings curvy while others are boxy, some surrounded by greenery while others are on stilts. There is reflecting glass and rusty iron everywhere, along with plentiful timber. There are also security cameras and alarm systems everywhere.
Marieke van Horick is taking her dog out just before her physical therapy appointment. The 54-year-old is a manager at a nursing service.
"The retirement age is constantly getting pushed higher and I'm afraid I'll have to work until I'm 70. My daughter has been waiting for 10 years for social housing in Almere but the foreigners get an apartment immediately. It's not fair. I entered my concerns and views into a voting guide app and it suggested I should vote for Geert Wilders or the General Elderly Alliance. Wilders has some good positions, but he's too extreme for me."
The older part of the city is located a little further to the south, behind warehouse and administrative buildings as flat as the tax rates that attract so many businesses here. One of those is Germany's largest adult entertainment retailer Beate Uhse, which has a logistics center in Almere it uses to ship products all across Europe.
In the Almere Haven neighborhood, city planners included Flemish gables and canals to make the very first transplants feel at home. The first settlers also got rent discounts to compensate for the sand that blew into every crevice and ground between their teeth in the first years after the sea was banished. Martin Timmers, a young man at the time, was one of the pioneers. Today he's 72-years-old, his fingers yellowed by the nicotine stains of a man who rolls his own cigarettes. He used to install tank systems, but now, in retirement, Timmers breeds sheep. On his mobile phone, he shows his black-and-white splotched herd. "Schoonebeeker heath sheep," he says.
"My father helped to found the Labor Party (PVDA), social democracy. That was in Brabant and, because everyone there is Catholic, it wasn't particularly welcome. But who still bothers to do anything for the workers today? Only Geert Wilders' PVV. All the things they make elderly people here pay for! I still manage to make ends meet, but my neighbors, an old married couple, are no longer able to live together. She got placed in a home and he was put in a hospital because, after reforms, they could no longer afford nursing care. They went bankrupt at 85. They had worked their entire lives - and then this? This is the product of Europe and all these rules. We're not living in our own country anymore."
German historian and Sinologist Karl August Wittfogel once coined the term "hydraulic society," a term meant to refer to despotic autocracies like China or Egypt where those who control the flood defenses and irrigation systems have a tight grip on power. The province surrounding Almere is the successful version of a hydraulic civilization - a place where hydraulic engineering and welfare have been perfected. The pump stations are as sophisticated as the public buses and austerity measures are implemented with care. Social workers are as ubiquitous and quick to respond as the dike technicians are in other places.
"Yes, everything is well organized," says the city's senior planning officer. "But you can't buy people."
A Metaphor for Loss
Tjeerd Herrema is a Social Democrat with the PVDA party, gaunt and bald, is wearing a shimmering navy-blue suit that perfectly matches his glasses. There's nothing about his appearance to suggest that he is a former labor union official. But that's just how things are in Holland.
Herrema explains how Amsterdam changed during the 1970s, when Turks and Moroccans moved into the poorer neighborhoods and the heroin problem exploded. "The white workers didn't necessarily feel enriched by the new cultures," he says. "So, they moved away, to Almere. Today, many feel as though they are experiencing the same thing all over again."
It's a widespread sentiment despite the fact that the Netherlands has an extremely strict admission policy and, in contrast to Germany, very few Syrian refugees arrived in the country. But Almere's population of pioneers is 40 years older today, with all the fears that come with advanced age. They spent decades paying into the pension system and now have to share the pie with new arrivals? "It's a kind of Heimweh", Herrema says, using the German word for homesickness. "Heimweh was one of many reasons why they don't feel at home. This new town didn't have identity as Amsterdam. So they couldn't relate to it too much."
Viewed in that context, Almere is also a metaphor for loss, one that is just as present as the noise from the nearby A6 motorway and also just as difficult to get rid of. It's the ambient noise of globalization.
Herrema says there's no longer such a thing as predictable voters and loyalties are coming undone. Members of the labor unions are flocking to the Socialist Party, while workers, unfortunately, are turning to Wilders, he says. Even many young Moroccans are no longer voting for the Social Democrats the way their parents did. An astoundingly large number of Surinamese and second-generation immigrants are likewise expressing sympathy for the statements made by Wilders. The homesickness is political as well.
Riny van Boxtel, 69 years old, used to work as a de-boner in an Amsterdam slaughterhouse. He moved to Almere, just a half-hour's drive away, 37 years ago after starting a family. As he does every morning, Van Boxtel is standing on the Almere market square with his friend Jan Hoefakker, 72, a former firefighter. Both were once classic constituents for the social democratic PVDA.
"When I go back to visit East Amsterdam, people say to me: 'Oh, a Dutchman - we haven't seen one of those in a long time.' There are so many Turks and Moroccans there. But I speak to everyone here. There's such unease. Normal people don't even dare to say some things. But Wilders says it. I estimate that 80 percent of the people think the same way he does. Something has to change. I'm willing to give him a chance for four years."
Almere's City Hall, home to the municipal administration, feels more like a casual gathering place than an office. With its sofas, pile rugs and espresso bar, it feels more like an IKEA living room display. There are sparkly clean computer terminals where locals can take care of their affairs.
Wilders' party has no office in the city, just a room for PVV city council members in the City Hall, where they tend to stick to themselves. "PVV is everywhere and nowhere at the same time," says the woman at the City Hall reception desk, adding, "If they wanted to be available, they would have given us a telephone number, wouldn't they? But we don't have it."
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PVV is the kind of party one might expect more from North Korea than Holland. Founder Wilders is the party's one-man chair, treasurer, judge and policy committee. He's the face and mind of the party and also, more than anything, its voice. Wilders is also the PVV's only member; other members would likely just get in the way.
The PVV campaign platform fits neatly on a single sheet of paper. It calls for the closure of all mosques in the Netherlands, the country's exit from the European Union, a ban on the Koran, a restoration of the retirement to 65, the closure of all asylum centers as well as an end to government subsidies for wind farms, art and development aid.
Tjeerd Herrema, the senior city planner, has amassed considerable experience with the group in the past years. Their behavior, for example, when it came to refugees. "During our informational meetings for local residents, the Wilders people come in and say that we're trying to bring terrorists into the neighborhood, that asylum-seekers rape their wives. It's terrible. But they don't discuss it in the city council. They don't want answers - they just want to ask questions. Preferably on Twitter."
Once a month, committee meetings at City Hall are open to the public, though attendance is sparse. When PVV representatives are addressed, the recoil as though they had been sprayed in the face with nerve gas. "No, no! Check with The Hague about that," they say, referring to the seat of the Dutch government.
- Part 1: A City of Workers Turns to Wilders
- Part 2: 'Many Here Vote for Wilders'