By Alexander Smoltczyk in Almere, The Netherlands
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.”
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.
‘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.