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Breaking the Cycle of Indifference: Participation of Ethnic Minorities in Local Politics

"It is essential for the civic health of cities that as many people as possible participate in its governance, feel they belong, and believe they will receive fair treatment from all agencies/institutions."

- Patrizia Brandellero, Eurocities

As the number of people belonging to ethnic minorities - defined here as immigrant groups with a consistent lower socio-economic status in terms of educational level and income - in the Netherlands increases, especially in cities, there is a pressing need to augment their participation in local government. Political participation, which is influenced by socio-economic factors and government action, is a key component of integration. Although Dutch policy officially pursues integration, this part of the process has not always received the attention that it deserves. This negligence has sometimes led to action from the bottom up as pressure groups have arisen to force policy-makers to address this problem. However, occasionally local councillors with foresight have started a dialogue with minorities to discuss their specific concerns and involve them in governance.  

Political participation in a strict sense can be divided into active (voting rights) and passive (the right to run for office). In a broader sense, it also encompasses the various ways of influencing policy-making, whether as an individual or as part of an organization. In general, ethnic minorities face more difficulties in this arena. The first threshold to cross is legal. In this respect, three different groups can be distinguished. The first group, immigrants from former Dutch colonies (Surinam and the Antilles), hold Dutch passports and enjoy full political rights on all levels. The second category consists of temporary laborers who arrived between 1960 and 1980 and their descendants. Many among them, mainly Turkish or Moroccan, have acquired dual nationality and thus have the same political rights as those in the first category. The remainder can vote and be elected at the municipal level on the condition that they have lived in the Netherlands for at least five years. The final category, gaining importance in recent years, is that of refugees. For those refugees who are "accepted," the five-year rule applies.

Whereas the legal framework for minority participation is the same across the Netherlands, in practice the broader political interaction varies among municipalities. This is especially important because, as former Minister of Domestic Affairs Hans Dijkstal stated in 1997, 80% of minority policy is local policy. As a result of this now officially adopted division of responsibilities, local municipalities have been given a large amount of freedom in deciding how to involve minorities in government. A common approach is that of the advisory council for minority issues. 42% of municipalities with more than 5% minorities have chosen this method. These councils, composed of representatives from minority organizations, have no decision-making power but are meant as a forum for communication. Organizations can voice their concerns and government officials can inform them of new policies. 

Whether due to ignorance or differing philosophy of governance, not all cities (or even districts) have taken such an open approach. The major distinction is between so-called minority and diversity policies. Minority policy aims to help specific groups by addressing their specific problems. This could be called the minority paradox: To achieve equality, policy should be aimed at particular groups, thereby differentiating  citizens. Diversity policy, on the other hand, treats all members of the lower economic classes equally regardless of ethnic background. As Bora Isik, second generation Turkish immigrant and member of the city council Geuzenveld/Slotermeer for the liberal VVD (People's Party for Freedom and Democracy), states, "Problems are mostly the same for all ethnic groups-work, education, housing...There shouldn't be a special Moroccan policy, Turkish policy, Chinese policy." The general city council of Amsterdam agrees. In Stadsdeel Oost/Watergraafsmeer, however, a minority policy is pursued, demonstrating that even within cities disagreement exists on this matter.

Openness on the part of local government is not the only prerequisite for successful participation. Minorities face the extra challenges of language, education, and knowledge of the Dutch system. Difference of language remains the largest obstacle although it has become less of a problem with the second and third generations of immigrants. Government officials have attempted to overcome this hurdle by providing information in Arabic, Turkish, and other languages. Mr. Isik emphasizes that the major responsibility lies with the minorities themselves.  In his view, "they should first learn to speak Dutch well" in order to be effective in politics. 

Apart from these objective challenges are pervasive feelings of distrust on each side. Many members of ethnic minorities, disillusioned by a system that has often failed to address adequately their concerns, are reluctant to turn to local government for a solution. The other side has not always been as sympathetic as could be expected. Lingering prejudice? Not in every case. Even though there is still discrimination and sometimes even racism, the major difficulties in communication result from simple ignorance of the cultural background of newcomers. Differences within and between minority groups also tend to be overlooked. 

The resulting discrimination is not always overt. Comfortable in a cafe near the university where his final law exam will take place in the next week, Mr. Isik says, "I was always accepted. They liked my style, my way of thinking." Others share a different experience. Rudi Speear, Surinamese immigrant and leader of the Democraten '66 party in Stadsdeel Zuidoost, is more skeptical. Speaking to us in Club Liberty, a social club that he runs for residents of the Bijlmer neighborhood, he declares, "The moment a black is in charge, most whites have big, big, big, big problems...They cannot accept that." The self-proclaimed Dutch tolerance is apparently not a reality in every arena. 

Voting and Being Elected

Legal restrictions are not the only hindrance to voting. Statistics show that ethnic minorities who can legally vote are not necessarily doing so: Turnout for these groups is well below the national average and still decreasing. This means that in places with high rates of migrants, legitimization of the political mandate is a problem since the city council barely represents its own citizens. Increasing voter participation is therefore one of the most pressing challenges for local democracy. 

Diminishing turnout is a nationwide trend that started in 1990. In that year, the low turnout sparked discussion among policy makers: How could political participation be increased? The resulting efforts to reach minorities can be seen as part of a widespread attempt to foster further interaction between politicians and their constituents (De Paus 1998). Such policies include such broad aims as improved education and socio-economic conditions as well as more focused initiatives. The Amsterdam VVD, for example, has created the Intercultureel Beraad (ICB or intercultural caucus), consisting of party members interested in minority issues. The caucus holds meetings with minorities in settings like mosques and cultural centers to introduce migrants to the political system in the Netherlands and raise their general political awareness. According to Mr. Isik, the meetings have been largely effective despite minorities' prejudice against his party. "The first fifteen minutes of our meetings are always spent on Bolkestein's remarks," he said in reference to Mr. Frits Bolkestein, the 1990's VVD leader who gained notoriety for his anti-immigrant language. ICB members explain that this was mere election rhetoric, says Isik, shifting in his seat, and does not represent the official party line. The meeting participants are engaged and receptive to the lessons of the seminars only once this point has been established, he explains. 

Observers identify this prejudice against the VVD as part of broad voting patterns of ethnic minority groups. As Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies researcher Anja van Heelsum states assuredly, "Ethnic minorities hardly ever vote on the right. The reason for this is that the right-wing parties [like the VVD] have been negative about minorities in the last years." To Van Heelsum, anti-immigration rhetoric appears to influence voters more than their socio-economic status. 

One might suppose, then, that immigrants would be eager to organize around their ethnic minority status to form specialized minority parties. Such parties have proven unsuccessful, however, for many reasons. A basic flaw of parties like the Party for Human Rights and the Progressive Minorities Party appears to be a lack of political savvy among the leadership. Little political experience or knowledge has made candidates less effective than those of established parties. "They only serve their own interests," says Mr. Isik with a dismissive gesture, "and a single-issue party doesn't attract votes from a broad base. Moreover, people are afraid to throw away their vote, since small parties do not always reach the threshold [for parliamentary representation]."

What then is the role of the ethnic factor, the preference to vote for people of one's own ethnic group? Researchers and politicians agree that it is secondary to an ideological choice. That is, a Moroccan immigrant is more likely to vote for a Dutch candidate from the Groen Links (Green Left) or the Partij van Arbeid (Labor Party) than for a Moroccan candidate with the VVD. Nevertheless, ethnicity does play a role after the ideological position has been established. In the 1998 Amsterdam local elections for example, 83% of Turkish voters supported Turkish candidates. 


How successful are candidates from ethnic minority groups? "You must be in an area that will support you," says Mr. Speear, whose Stadsdeel Zuidoost constituents comprise Amsterdam's most concentrated minority population. In Amsterdam on the whole, the average councillor is a white male, aged almost fifty. Minorities are 30% of the city's population but hold just 15% of city council seats, although participation is rising faster than population (O+S Statistics). Ms. Van Heelsum even suggests the possibility that the next elections will lead to an over-representation of ethnic minorities in local government. Opinion is divided on how many of these candidates will serve simply as "window-dressing" for their parties, though. As Mr. Haroon Saad, Director of Socio-Economic Renewal in Amsterdam Zuidoost, says thoughtfully, "Tokenism is an element of this. Candidates may not always be strong, but they are safe."  He refers here to those "hand-picked" ethnic candidates chosen by political parties in order to counter the growing appeal of charismatic ethnic leaders outside their own ranks. Mr. Speear sees a definite danger in this phenomenon-a chance that certain parties (whom he choses not to name "on the record") may go so far as to place less competent minorities in prominent positions in the hope of demonstrating their failure. Other, less-suspicious observers question whether a party would intentionally highlight flaws within its organization. They see the phenomenon as an attempt to attract immigrant votes that occasionally results in inadequate representation. As Mr. Isik and Ms. Van Heelsum both note, though, finding effective candidates is not a problem peculiar to ethnic minorities-competent "native  Dutch" councillors are difficult to locate, as well. When asked about the low representation of migrants among candidates, the former shakes his head and exhales. "You can't expect ethnic minorities to do something that the Dutch aren't willing to do either." 

Whose Responsibility? Top-Down and Bottom -Up Solutions

Whose job is integration? Who is willing to take what measures is an important question in increasing political participation. In Mr. Isik 's view, the responsibility is that of the individual wishing to integrate, and people who are better-educated can do this easily. Government often takes a similar view until problems arise. Unwilling to let society take a reactionary role in the process, some local officials have taken steps toward integration with progressive government policies. 

Stadsdeel Oost/Watergraafsmeer is a case in point. In this borough, there are no migrant councillors despite a high ethnic minority population. To assure that minorities still have a voice in government, the chair of the Stadsdeelraad, Ms. Joke Koningh, has emphasized the importance of a special minority policy to address ethnic group-specific concerns. Exceptionally, this borough's active minority policy was not triggered by actual problems, as has been the case elsewhere.

As part of the policy implemented in Oost, in 1995 the mayor invited the leaders of local ethnic organizations to form an advisory board of minorities. This board, known as the Bestuurlijk Overleg Minderheden Organisaties (BOMO) also includes public organizations and district officials. Despite all good intentions, a gap in information, funding, political power between government and the other participants hinders communication on equal footing. In other words, meetings of the BOMO occasionally turn into information sessions led by officials. Still, organizations are eager to join the board, and not only for the subsidies that can be associated with it. As Gürbüz Yabas, Turkish immigrant and coordinator of minority policy for the borough, says, "They don't join because of the subsidies; they join to become a partner and acquire respect. They can get government funding without participating in the BOMO." The BOMO's members, like many advisory boards, do complain of a lack of influence, but Ms. Van Heelsum believes that "they are definitely listened to." This does not in every case lead to the desired solution. Van Heelsum mentions the example of a mosque organization that wanted to shelter homeless people during a cold Christmas holiday. The police, upholding housing codes, prevented that because the building contained no showers. The mosque then turned to the city officials through BOMO to ask for help. To the members' disappointment, the board explained that housing the homeless was not the municipality's task and simply gave the mosque a list of existing relief organizations. 

Despite these problems, a 1999 policy review revealed that the BOMO (which, at the outset, dealt mainly with issues such as improved education and employment) was functioning well. Still, wrote the evaluators, the local government needed to pay more attention to political participation. To this end, the BOMO holds courses for people who are interested in becoming councillors in addition to serving as a forum for the expression of minority concerns. Course participants learn about politics in general and in their own district and attend party meetings. "We expect twelve to fifteen [out of about 50] of them to be in the next council," says Ms. Koningh. "This will also help minority voters to identify with politics and thereby increase political participation."

Due to the success of the BOMO, contact among ethnic groups has greatly increased along with contact between the groups and the government. "It was our policy to put all the groups together," explains Ms. Koningh. "The idea was not to have a one-to-one relationship between each minority organization and the government." To make the initial contacts, the borough first had to find dialogue partners. Some ethnic communities were highly organized from the start, which made this easier. Others have begun to organize as a response to the existence of BOMO. This is a very positive development, because - as Van Heelsum points out - organization among minorities results in improved political participation. Even for those people who are not members of ethnic organizations or the advisory board, though, there is a way of reaching the administration. They can speak to the mayor individually, as her office door is regularly open for her constituents. 

The Stadsdeel Oost/Watergraafsmeer example, so strongly guided by the progressiveness of a few individuals, is seen as extremely successful and is currently being copied in other areas of the city. Oost's methods have nevertheless caused some friction within city government. Amsterdam's general city council opposes the idea of a minority policy, favoring a diversity policy approach that avoids group-specific problems in favor of broad aims of socio-economic improvement. Ms. Koningh and Mr. Yabas, however, assert that the difference is purely semantic. "In practice," they say, "the two policies are about equal." The BOMO is currently setting up working groups on specific themes, like education, welfare, the elderly. Within these themes the problem groups will be addressed-coming, in effect, very close to the general Amsterdam diversity policy. The distinction lies in the emphasis: difference between groups or diversity of the whole.

The Racial Divide

Top-down initiatives like Oost's plans to increase minority participation were absent from the Bijlmer neighborhood in the 1990s. Here, a unique black-white conflict led to a mobilization that won increased political power for ethnic minorities. In the Bijlmer area, where the population is 84% migrant (largely Surinamese, Antillean, and Ghanaian) and 35% under 30 years old, voter turnout figures are even lower than in the rest of the Zuidoost borough. Originally conceived in the 1960's as a utopian neighborhood with high-rise apartment buildings in a park-like landscape, the Bijlmer did not attract middle-class people as had been hoped. The housing corporation then started to fill the apartments with recent immigrants from almost-independent Surinam. "They didn't know how to live in such a small area with so little space," describes Mr. Speear. "The people were mostly from poor, non-urban areas in Surinam and had huge adaptation problems. There were too many poor and low-educated people here and the politicians kept them quiet by with the generous social security system that the Netherlands had in the sixties and seventies." The problems began to grow. As the green, grassy slopes between the high-rises turned into trouble-ridden areas, the Bijlmer developed a nationwide reputation of social mismanagement. High unemployment and crime rates attracted the attention of media and politicians.

Taking note of this in 1996, the European Union URBAN-project for investment in economically depressed urban areas channelled 26 million Dutch guilders towards the Bijlmer. Here, an entirely "native Dutch" council was waiting to make decisions about where the money should go in the migrant-majority neighborhood. Frustrated by their lack of input, a group of citizens formed the Zwart Beraad (Black Caucus), triggering an unparallelled representation of blacks in politics. Ironically, these blacks were not themselves members of Zwart Beraad but were instead chosen by parties to counter the group's influence. The caucus initially organized itself within the local Labor Party, but the party leadership perceived this as a threat. As a result Zwart Beraad began to operate outside the settled political parties, which made it even more frightening for the political establishment. "A specific course can be useful at a certain stage," asserts researcher Jan Rath.  "The caucus gets on the nerves of white politicians and strengthens solidarity among the blacks. But it's also an appeal to the reasonableness of the white politicians. A party that clearly ignores the largest part of the population is never morally right" (De Paus 1998). Not wanting to be marked as "morally wrong," political parties started to include minorities of their own choosing within their ranks to maintain credibility. For instance, the present chair of Zuidoost, Ms. Hannah Belliot, was one of those minorities chosen by the Labor Party at the time. Eventually the Zwart Beraad fell apart when their charismatic leader died. "In a sense," says Mr. Saad regarding the Zwart Beraad conflict, "everything that's happened since then has its origins in that movement."

Today, the ethnic background of the councillors in the Bijlmer and Zuidoost matches that of the voters more closely than in any other area. Despite this gain, inhabitants lack motivation to vote. The turnout in the latest local elections was 39.5%, one of the lowest in Amsterdam and a number that Haroon Saad considers "a sign of deep malaise." According to Saad, such low voting rates point to a generalized feeling that the government does not matter and that the local structure is irrelevant, and to a lack of understanding of the people's relationship with government.

Beyond voting, other methods are employed by Bijlmer residents to make their voices heard. "To get heard, you have to organize and campaign...The whole process of change has already resulted in more people-based agitation," observes Mr. Saad. "The physical renewal that's now taking place is creating a conflictual style of participation." Involvement through conflict has shown to be effective. To many in the Bijlmer, this is proven by the Zwart Beraad's success in achieving a more mixed representation in local politics. No other district has as many ethnic minorities among its representatives. The unfortunate consequence of the struggle is that it appears to have become impossible to extract racial terminology from political discourse. One example of this can be seen in Surinamese and Antillean voting patterns. These groups are inclined to consider the black-white opposition as the most important political divide and thus vote most often for black candidates (Tillie 1998). As the Bijlmer has a high concentration of these groups, this can partly explain the racially-centered debate.

Do all ethnic minorities see Bijlmer politics in these terms? No. "They mean well," says chair Hannah Belliot, who does not believe at all in ethnic roots of socio-economic problems. "Spare me! It is no more than a class problem." (Snoeijen 1998). While Ms. Belliot was too busy to speak with us, other interviewees gave us the impression that her views are not necessarily representative of minorities' opinions. As we mentioned above, she was one of the candidates "hand-picked" by the political parties to counter the influence of the Zwart Beraad. 

Hannah Belliot's position demonstrates the dilemma that minorities in politics face. To stay accountable to the party, observers say that they have to give up at least part of their identity. "It's a very hard role to play," says Saad, who is himself an ethnic minority working in government. "Do they have to cease being black? Undoubtedly, yes. Hannah Belliot has had to neutralize the very thing that got her there and learn to tow the party line." It appears, then, that ethnic minority candidates are trapped in a vicious cycle: The political parties hope to attract ethnic voters by involving ethnic politicians. At the same time, they expect these new members to adopt party ideology. This creates a kind of schizophrenic tension for the ethnic politician, torn between party and people, and can endanger their support base. Voter opinions are divided. Some think the ethnic policy makers can represent them better because they have a similar background. But many say that nothing has been delivered. 


Representatives themselves are not the only problem. Increasing a broader participation-for example, on social issues-is also a serious concern in the Bijlmer. Rudi Speear recounts his experience as chair of tenant meetings: "Before I came, almost everyone at the meetings was white.  I tried to give the blacks a chance to speak, and it brought more blacks in. I didn't want blacks to rule; I wanted them to participate." Similarly, the housing company tried to attract people to meetings about the planned physical renewal by setting up big tents between the high-rises with music and food to accompany the information. The company combined these efforts with almost permanent meetings with active inhabitants, thus circumventing the white-run tenant organizations. Success was mixed. Tenants complained of a language barrier and felt that they were not listened to.

"All this is part of an ad hoc approach," criticizes Mr. Saad. "There are some good examples, but the overall situation is not so impressive...For the first time city council members are having meetings on what genuine participation means. All the research shows that people want a few basic things: good communication, more direct information and clear feedback channels. This should be the benchmark of our policy." Saad does not believe that the language itself is a problem (translations can be provided). Instead, the average person has difficulty understanding the implications of decisions because of the technicality of crucial factors. As a result, most people participate in the form of complaints. "A more positive way should be found. To make government more accessible, the Zuidoost borough is planning to create computer centers in all the major buildings. The aim is to inform and involve people by e-mail," says Saad enthusiastically.

Current Bijlmer policy lies in the grey area between the policies of the central city council and the Oost/Watergraafsmeer borough. "There is a general concept in the Netherlands that specific policies are needed for specific groups," says Mr. Saad. "Unfortunately, this can reinforce racial identity and create further conflict. We should start from a cross-cutting theme like employment or education. Within that theme, we address those groups that need special attention. So we don't focus on their ethnic identity but on their being unemployed or needing education." This focus on themes instead of groups means that a large ethnic group will not necessarily receive large resources. "It's not based on arithmetic," affirms Mr. Saad, "it's based on need."  Where political participation is concerned, this means that the emphasis is on those minority groups whose involvement is lowest. 

Phone One, Find All.

"People aren't queuing up to participate," states Mr. Saad matter-of-factly. Whether from top-down or bottom-up, this is a challenge that must be overcome for the "civic health of cities." As a Dutch proverb says, unknown makes unbeloved, and this goes for politics as well. Poor communication and bad information perpetuate mistrust among minorities towards politicians. These must therefore be the first targets for reform. Both contents and channels must change. Technical language should be made understandable. Information should reach people in their own immediate environment. Important meetings should take place in tents or community centers rather than government buildings. And still closer, on their own computers, as Mr. Saad suggests. Networks of people are of even greater importance. "In a well-organized community, to find active people you can just phone one and know that your information will reach many. The higher the number of organizations, the greater the chance that the public is connected," says Ms. Van Heelsum. This takes community initiative but can also be aided by government policy.

Problems tend to be the trigger for any government action concerning minorities. The Bijlmer demonstrates that once a conflictual way of participation has taken root, returning to fruitful dialogue is difficult. The Zwart Beraad did effect change, as the high rate of minority councillors shows. But general interest in local politics and the will to vote in particular are still lacking. Bold steps remain to be taken to break the cycle of indifference. We are encouraged by today's initiatives and think that they open opportunities to the Bijlmer's residents. On the other hand, the Oost approach's preventive nature is appealing. Contacts between policy makers and minorities have been improved. Political participation has been institutionalized through the BOMO. Organization among minorities has increased. Trust is growing. The next elections will show whether these policies will bear fruit. 

Both the bottom-up and top-down methods to increase political participation can lead to success.  However, a singular bottom-up approach such as that used in the Bijlmer is so conflict-centered that it can cause a permanent strain on relations between government and governed. Working top-down can involve minorities without being patronizing. For this to be effective, though, politicians must be convinced that minority participation is a worthwhile goal. Moreover, their commitment must extend to continuous improvement upon existing initiatives. This willingness in itself fosters an atmosphere of trust in local communities. And trust is the basis of a successful participation.



Braam, Stella, 'Zwart-zijn is ons wapen', De Groene Amsterdammer (23 October 1996).

Heelsum, Anja van, 'Political Participation of Migrants in the Netherlands', Paper for the Metropolis Conference (2000)  home.pscw.uva.nl/vanheelsum/project7.htm

Migrantenbeleid in beeld. Nota migrantenbeleid van stadsdeel Oost/Watergraafsmeer (March 2001). 

Paus, Remko de, Opvallend aanwezig. Participatie van etnische minderheden in zes gemeenten belicht (Amsterdam 1998).

Penninx, Rinus, Introductory Lecture for the Conference 'Ethnic Minorities and Local Government' (22-23 January 1998) www.unesco.org/most/p97lect.htm#cities

Snoeijen, Monique, 'Bijlmer: Volop kleur in de politiek', NRC Handelsblad (15 January 1998).

Statistical data from the Amsterdam Bureau for Research and Statistics (S+O), www.onstatamsterdam.nl 

Tillie, Jean, 'Explaining Migrant Voting Behaviour in the Netherlands. Combining the Electoral Research and Ethnic Studies Perspective', Revue Européenne des Migrations Internationales 14 (1998) 71-95.

Wolff, Rick, Anja van Heelsum and Rinus Penninx, Migrantenbeleid. Erkend, aangesproken, aanspreekbaar? Evaluatie van het migrantenbeleid van voormalig stadsdeel Oost en de participatie van organisaties van migranten, 1996-1998 (Amsterdam 1999).


Heelsum, Anja van. Researcher for the Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies.

Isik, Bora. VVD councillor in Stadsdeel Geuzenveld/Slotermeer.

Koningh, Joke. Chair of Stadsdeelraad Oost/Watergraafsmeer, and Gürbüz Yabas, coordinator of minority policies in Stadsdeelraad Oost/Watergraafsmeer.

Saad, Haroon. Director of Socio-Economic Renewal in Stadsdeel Zuidoost.

Speear, Rudi. Chair of Democraten '66 for Stadsdeel Zuidoost.

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Netherlands Netherlands 2001


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