Fish, Folk Music and Politics - Why Did Volendam Vote for Wilders?

Old Dutch fishing boats, traditional Dutch clothing and the famous Dutch folk singer, Jan Smit. That is what comes to people's minds when we ask about Volendam. The village and its 22,000 inhabitants clearly stand out for their typical Dutchness. Now, due to the recent European Parliament (EP) elections, Volendam is also known for its political views.
 
In these elections, the far-right party of Geert Wilders enjoyed the biggest victory out of all the Dutch political parties. The so-called Freedom Party (PVV) won 17 percent of the vote, giving it four out of the 25 Dutch seats in the EP and making it the second biggest party behind the Christian Democrats (CDA). The PVV's popularity during the EP elections was most pronounced in the municipality of Edam-Volendam, consisting of two different cities, where on average 39.8% of the voters supported the PVV.  In Volendam alone, one in every two people gave their vote to the PVV. 

Volendam and Islam

Wilders is most famous for his harsh stance against Muslims. He once compared the Koran to Hitler's Mein Kampf, and the PVV's website is headed: "Stop the Islamisation of The Netherlands". But Volendam is about as white and Dutch as it gets. Members of the Dutch and foreign press are therefore examining other reasons to explain Volendam's support for Wilders. Scholars and experts cited in these press reports point to the EU-scepticism of the PVV’s platform as the main reason for Dutch support. However, many other Dutch parties also attract EU-skeptic voters. What the domestic and international press, academic scholars, and experts overlook are the background concerns of Dutch voters in towns like Volendam. 
 
On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, we stroll through Volendam. Eager to talk to real Volendammers, we go to the famous harbor which is full of Dutch fishing boats. Next to the local ice cream shop we find a group of elderly men, talking in the typical Volendam dialect. They smile and tell us that they are retired construction workers. Two of them have been fishermen at some points in their lives. This is typical for Volendam, an insular Catholic community where over half of the adult men are construction workers or fishermen.
 
Why did so many people vote for the PVV? The group is hesitant at first, until one man breaks the silence by pointing at his friends. “They can tell you, they all voted for Wilders!” Their main reason for voting PVV seems to be their fear of Muslims. Muslims are not yet living in Volendam, but townspeople here think ahead and not backwards. The ice cream seller decides to quit his work for a moment to join the discussion. He is an overweight middle-aged man, and his white T-shirt has trouble covering his entire upper body. He says: “Our Dutch forefathers, they kicked out the Spanish and then the Germans. Now there are other people taking over our country, and nobody is doing anything? This country is being taken over by the Muslims and their violent religion. Did you see the newspaper? About the young Iranian girl that got killed? And we watch the news too, you know. We know what happens in Gouda and Rotterdam. We don’t want that here.” Looking at Nikolai, a white, bearded American student, he asks, “Your man there, he’s not a Muslim, is he?”
 
A very old and sophisticated-looking man shakes his head firmly and points out other reasons why people in the town support Wilders. Volendam is a closed community, and people are prone to following one another in their opinions. “They behave like sheep. When a neighbor tells them that he is voting for the PVV, they will also. They have never had trouble with Muslims, but they just believe what is in the newspapers and what friends tell them. If they would really think, they would see that Wilders is an impolite man.” He is a retired construction worker, but might as well have been a history teacher. “Don’t forget that it was Catholic Germany that invaded the Netherlands. And have you seen the Road to Mecca? It’s about Arab and Muslim art. It’s stunning.” His friends laugh. One of them has been to Egypt and did not see “anything beautiful there”. The ice cream man starts summing up: “Mozart, Bach, Schubert, Wagner...And what comes from that sandpit, the Arab world? Nothing but violence, female circumcision and suppression.” A small fisherman heats up the debate, asking us: “Do you know what we need to do with the Muslims? We should throw them in the water, right here. And then we close the harbor and make it a parking lot.” 
 
So, the men fear the Islamic religion. But what about other “outsiders”, such as the European Union? The men start mumbling and the ice cream man steps forward again. “Brussels tells us everything! Not far from now they will tell us which color toilet paper to use. And look at this beautiful harbor. It was full of eel, and fishermen would be working here all day. And now the boats are not sailing anymore because of Brussels.” When we ask if they know some fishermen we can talk to, the group starts laughing. Impossible, they shout, the fishermen are gone. The boats are now only being used for tourists. Only two of them still serve their original purpose. We decide to leave and the men point to the ice cream seller. “Remember him, he will be the next Prime Minister!” He proudly pulls his T-shirt straight and insists on giving us a free ice cream. 

The Two Dissenting Districts

With an EP election turnout of 34.6%, well below the average turnout of 43.1%, the PVV gained 2,954 of the 7,425 votes in Edam-Volendam. These figures combine Edam, in which the PVV won 19% of the votes, and Volendam, which gave almost half of its votes to Wilders. But the PVV is not only the overall winner; in fact, it was the biggest party in 11 of the 13 districts. Some districts even show an absolute majority, meaning that the PVV gained more votes than all other parties combined. Only the 7th and the 11th districts have a completely different profile, with the Christian Democrats (CDA) as the clear winners.
 
We decide to look deeper into those two districts in Edam-Volendam where Wilders lost. The 7th and 11th districts turn out to be two homes for the elderly, called “De Meermin” and “St. Nicolaashof”, respectively. Why does the eldest generation not support the PVV? Remco Rekoert, who coordinated the election there, is very clear about this. "It is scary when there is an economic crisis and one group of people gets scapegoated and discriminated. The old people have the images of the war in their minds. That is why it is so important that these people are still alive and participating in the political process." Nelleke Veerman, a nurse in the home “De Meermin”, is more nuanced. “People living here care about their little plants and other small things. Their world has become very small, you know. Unless Obama is on television, then they like to talk about him. Besides that, they don’t engage in politics anymore. And of course there’s the war trauma. When they see Wilders they immediately see resemblances with the SS or even Hitler. Yes, I have heard them say that sometimes.” 
 
Beyond the age demographic, there are significant voting differences between Edam and Volendam. Mrs. Veerman is not surprised about this. “I know why the PVV gained more votes in Volendam than in Edam. Volendam is a very closed community and people tend to follow each other’s opinion.” Certainly, Volendammers tend to look inward and be very protective of their community. But do they support his harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric? “Indeed, there are no immigrants living in Volendam. Maybe people there just think Geert Wilders is a nice person or they like his shoes. The same was with Pim Fortuyn, they even voted for him when he was dead”. She herself supports the harsh stance that the PVV and Volendammers take against immigrants. “I mean, when I go on holidays in Spain, I have to behave well. Don’t you think so?”

Political "Sheep" Who Desire Independence

Remco Rekoert's office is located in the simple two-story Edam-Volendam municipal government building. Lyske, a Dutch native, remarks upon how the small, orderly garden at the front of the building reflects the town: simple and similar. As the election coordinator of the municipality, Mr. Rekoert responds to voter concerns for all of the different elections.
 
Rekoert’s accent is different from that of the urban Dutch, and he speaks very slowly. At first, he is shy, keeping his answers to our initial questions neutral and brief. Rekoert's take on the attitudes of people in his municipality resembles that of the nurse in Edam. He describes the people as "little sheep" when it comes to their approach to Dutch politics. The PVV easily won the majority of EU votes, yet there is no local PVV party or active PVV members within the municipality. "This is very telling for Edam-Volendam. The citizens have strong opinions and know what to think and say, but when it comes to action, they don't do anything." He suggests that voters choose the party that will act for them. If no such party exists, then many voters will stay home. 
 
So, what political concerns does the party of Wilders address for Edam-Volendam voters? Rekoert responds to this by pointing to the success of Pim Fortuyn in past elections. Fortuyn was a predecessor to Wilders in terms of his far-right Dutch politics and strong criticisms of the EU’s relatively lax immigration policy. In particular, there are fewer boundaries for workers within Europe. Much of the internal immigration there involves Eastern Europeans migrating to Western Europe. These immigrant workers come from Poland, and former Soviet countries like Hungary and Slovenia. 
 
"Our voters are very anti-European Union and are concerned with the social issues surrounding immigration," Rekoert says. From discussions with voters, he finds that they are most focused on the concern that people are taking advantage of the welfare system and social benefits, as opposed to being specifically anti-immigrant or anti-Islam. Many people in the Netherlands are concerned about losing jobs due to the increased presence of foreign workers. At the same time, he points out, many construction workers in Volendam find work within their community, and then refuse to give these opportunities to foreigners. Volendammers are aware of the global recession and share the generally held belief that they are likely to lose work if more immigrants arrive. 
 
These genuine concerns over increased immigration manifest themselves somewhat differently among residents of the town of Edam. A 30 minute walk from Volendam, Edam has had immigrants and Muslims for several generations. According to Rekoert, Moroccans comprise the main group, but most of Edam's immigrants have Dutch nationality. The immigrants who lack citizenship, mostly older women, chose not to apply for citizenship due to an inability to speak Dutch. The number of immigrants in Edam is increasing, further compounded by the fact that the Netherlands classifies their children as also being immigrant. Yet, only 19.5% of voters in Edam supported Wilders, as compared to the 49.9% voter support in Volendam. The voters who Rekoert works with there are less concerned with immigration as a political issue, and have a more open-minded perspective due to their contact with a diverse group of people. Veerman, the nurse, feels that immigration is not the chief concern of voters in either Edam or Volendam, even if it is a growing political issue.  However, as the economy worsens and social welfare concerns grow, support for the PVV may grow as well. 
 
Rekoert admits that the anti-Islamic rhetoric of the PVV may have played a part in Volendam’s support of Wilders. The prospect of a worsening recession, coupled with a general distrust of foreigners, contributes to this. Still, the main aspect of the PVV’s platform to align with the political concerns of Volendammers is a desire for independence. Joop van Holsteyn, a Political Science professor at Leiden University who focuses on Dutch elections and public opinion, argues that voters in Volendam distrust all groups of outsiders, not only Muslims. "Although anti-Islam feelings may have played their part [in the Parliament elections], the impression based on journalistic reports is that the attitude towards the EU dominated the vote in this smaller village of people who work hard and do not like the interference from people from 'outside', be they foreigners, The Hague, or the EU."
 
Therefore. the Volendam election results need to be put into perspective. With their low turnout of 43.1%, the European elections do not compare to the national elections which had almost twice as high a turnout in 2006. The EP elections might not be considered very important by people who lack strong anti-establishment feelings. Most people in Volendam just go about their daily business. We observe this “work first, politics later” attitude at the beautiful museum devoted to the history of Volendam, which attracts many foreign visitors. The saleswoman behind the counter is selling traditional Dutch sweets to two men with Indian accents. When we ask whether she has heard about the European elections, she gives us a confused look. We ask her directly about Wilders, and her colleague responds instead: "I have no clue as well. I was on holidays then, you know. I wasn’t here when this happened."

The Larger Picture: Volendam in the Netherlands, Europe, and the World

What do Dutch citizens outside of Volendam think of the town and their support for Wilders? For instance, what about the more liberal residents of Amsterdam? Living about a 45-minute train ride from Volendam in North Amsterdam, Berend van Bemmel feels the logic is simple. "They support Wilders because they are afraid of the Polish and Eastern Europeans taking their work". A Groen Links Party (pro-Europe, Leftist) member, Berend despises Wilders, but empathizes with Volendammers. A Volendam construction worker built his new kitchen. Berend knows that many construction workers in Volendam would lose work if more Eastern Europeans came to the Netherlands. 
 
How does an area like Volendam compare to similar places elsewhere in Europe and the world? Berend compares Volendam to Nashville, TN, a city in the US famous for country music and cowboy clothing. At the same time, Nashville, like the rest of the South, is known for supporting candidates on the Right. Some Americans in northern sections of the country view Southerners as uneducated and extremely pro-American, which they associate with a general anti-immigrant sentiment. Does the same hold true for Volendam and other non-urban towns in the Netherlands? If the citizens in these towns are uneducated and nationalistic, do they reject immigrants in general? 
 
Professor Mark Bovens argues that towns like Volendam support the PVV not simply because of their anti-immigrant stance. Bovens, a Professor of Public Administration at Utrecht University, posits that Volendammers vote for Wilders because he provides a voice for the less educated, who do not benefit from the European Union. He sees the majority of Dutch parties ignoring the working class and their political concerns. "Highly-educated people can hire a Polish house painter while the less-educated have to compete for jobs with those painters.” In trying to understand this divide in Dutch politics, Bovens goes beyond the Christian-Muslim, Dutch-immigrant dichotomy that many rely upon to explain why people vote for or despise Wilders. "I would distinguish between areas that are populated by well-educated, highly-professional, cosmopolitan voters such as Amsterdam and university towns like Leiden, on the one hand, and those populated by less-educated, lower-skilled, nationalistic voters, such as former industrial areas, but also poor or declining rural areas and traditional 'blue collar' villages, such as Edam and Volendam." 
 
Bovens has spent the majority of his academic career researching the successes and failures of public governance, and trust in government throughout the Netherlands. In his research of Dutch voters, he found that lower-skilled workers tend to support the far right's explicit anti-European Union platform. He sees the recent alliance between the far right and working-class municipalities like Edam-Volendam as part of a larger trend in the Netherlands and throughout Europe. The growth of parties like the PVV in these municipalities is a very important development throughout the continent, which will play a major role in the upcoming municipal and national elections.

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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2009

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