Gwen van Eijk is associated with Erasmus School of Law as a criminologist and urban sociologist. Her main areas of research are inequality, segregation, gentrification and people’s perception of safety in an urban context.
Besides working as an academic researcher, Van Eijk also regularly publishes in the popular media.
Leefbaar Rotterdam (11 seats) remains the largest party on the Council, followed by VVD, PvdA, D66 and GroenLinks (5 each). Newcomer DENK tallied up 3 seats, while Nida, SP, CDA and PVV each landed 2. Were you surprised by the outcome?
“The turnout wasn’t much higher than four years ago. It was 46.8% compared to 45.1% last time. This means that a number of new parties, which people were expecting a lot from – particularly DENK and PVV – weren’t able to get stay-at-home voters off the couch. So you could call it a shift more than anything. The fact that Leefbaar Rotterdam lost a few seats – they had 14 before – doesn’t come as a surprise. Their votes probably went to PVV and 50PLUS. GroenLinks did well – in line with Jesse Klaver’s performance nationally. And so did VVD. The main thing that struck me was how small SP has become – from 5 to 2 seats.”
SP’s first candidate Leo de Kleijn blames this on the fact that this year’s elections were completely dominated by the identity debate. How do you look back on the recent campaigns?
“I’m worried. Leefbaar Rotterdam in particular waged a relentless, polarising campaign. From the moment that SP, PvdA, GroenLinks and Nida formed their left-wing alliance – which fell apart later on – Leefbaar systematically referred to a ‘left-wing/Islamist bloc’. Right down to a video insinuating that these four parties were Erdogan’s puppets. At the national level, this kind of scaremongering and hate-mongering against Islam has been going on for some time now – particularly within PVV – but Leefbaar definitely took things up a notch. For the past four years, the party had to keep a low profile as a member of the Municipal Executive together with D66 and CDA. But they’ve gone full circle, back to the theme originally launched by Pim Fortuyn. In fact: the tone has become even grimmer. Their message is: ‘we only represent some Rotterdammers – not all of them’.”
Apparently, this is an appealing message for a quarter of the electorate. What does this say about Rotterdam?
“Leefbaar’s campaign revolves around people no longer feeling at home in their own neighbourhood. For example, this week’s broadcast of Nieuwsuur focused on a proposal by Leefbaar’s leading candidate Joost Eerdmans to get more Dutch greengrocers back in the high street. Supposedly, there are too many halal butchers, phone shops and shisha lounges. I’m not saying you don’t see a lot of these shops. I live in Bloemhof, in South Rotterdam, and I agree we have an inordinate number of shopkeepers with a Turkish background. But their shops also have names ‘Het Kalf’ (‘The Calf’) and ‘Vleescentrum Feijenoord’ (‘Feijenoord meat Centre’) and they target a Dutch audience. Leefbaar calls it ‘Little Ankara’ in their campaign. That kind of rhetoric completely ignores what it’s like in reality.
“Rotterdam has basically started to change colour over the past few decades. In the 1960s and ’70s, it was migrant workers; later on, refugees. But right now, we’re talking about their children and grandchildren. They’re no longer migrants; they’re Dutch citizens – fellow Rotterdammers. That’s something you’ll have to deal with. There’s no point in simply pretending they don’t belong.”
In the period 2002-2006 – Leefbaar’s first stint on the Executive – the Municipality made work of the drugs problem in Rotterdam and closed the streetwalking zone near Keileweg. In the most recent period – once again with Leefbaar on board – we saw the city developing into an attractive tourist destination, as well as recovery in the local housing market. Hasn’t Leefbaar Rotterdam simply done a good job?
“That could be. The question remains, however, how many of these successes can be attributed to one party. Things are looking up for Rotterdam – but things are going well in a lot of cities. All over the West, you see falling crime rates, a resurgence in the housing market. It’s true, Rotterdam is also reaping the benefits from a worldwide trek towards the cities. The city is hot: there’s a lot more to do, public areas have been cleaned up and festivals are spreading like wildfire.
“Except, some people are benefiting less from these trends than others. We see a process of gentrification, in which the city centre and the surrounding districts in particular draw an increasingly wealthy and highly-educated category of resident. As a rule, you don’t find that many Leefbaar voters in this group, however. They’re mainly in the old neighbourhoods and along the periphery, where you notice far less of Rotterdam’s current renaissance. In this sense, the city’s fragile recovery may even lead to even stronger feelings of dissatisfaction within Leefbaar’s constituency.”
GroenLinks gained quite a bit – from 2 to 5 seats. You could see this as a boost for sustainability initiatives in a city that struggles with both a high volume of road traffic and a polluting port. But this barely seems to have played a role in this year’s elections. Why is that?
“It’s strange that the port didn’t play a significant role in this year’s elections. We’re still the largest port in Europe, and we’re up against a number of challenges. Both when it comes to sustainability – in other words, cutting our carbon emissions – and to creating opportunities: giving young people the education they need to get a job in the changing port. But there are other themes that should actually be very high on the agenda in Rotterdam, but about which we have heard next to nothing these past few months: education, employment, affordable housing, the increasing gap between rich and poor. One out of four children in Rotterdam still grows up in poverty. Has anyone actually brought this up?”
A lot was expected of DENK and PVV as the national challengers of local parties Nida and Leefbaar Rotterdam. In Schiedam, DENK earned 11.7% of the votes, making it second only to VVD. In Rotterdam, however, the party stalled at 3 seats, and PVV only scored 2. What went wrong?
“Apparently, they failed to mobilise a sizeable new constituency of their own. DENK probably took a number of voters from PvdA and SP: parties that used to be popular choices for people with a migration background and that have presently surrendered a lot of votes. I wouldn’t be surprised if a share of the Leefbaar electorate had preferred to vote PVV, but Wilders isn’t running in Rotterdam. On top of which local PVV departments are often a mess. And they didn’t wage a particularly strong campaign. And let’s be honest: Leefbaar has almost the same programme. PVV wants to close mosques; Leefbaar doesn’t want any new mosques. It’s a question of nuances. I believe Leefbaar does a better job at identifying local issues. By not only focusing on Islam, but also on problems relating to unemployed Eastern Europeans, for example.”
‘It’s a shame to say, but as a society we aren’t ready yet to allow a party that draws inspiration from Islam to play a significant role’
The most obvious coalition to consider – Leefbaar, VVD, D66 and CDA – has been shot down beforehand. D66 leader Alexander Pechtold has ruled out collaborations with any parties associated with Forum voor Democratie (Leefbaar Rotterdam, for example). And the left-wing alliance fell apart after a comment by Jesse Klaver. Was it bad news for the local democratic process that this year’s municipals were dominated by national party politics?
“In itself, it’s not a huge problem when national politicians get involved the way they did in these elections. After all, people also vote for a party because it takes clear positions – and these are clear in part thanks to national debates. Although personally, I feel very disappointed with GroenLinks and with how they called off their participation in the left-wing alliance. Anyone who knows something about politics in Rotterdam knows that Nida isn’t a radical Islamist party, that they don’t have ties with Hamas and that they aren’t controlled behind the scenes by Erdogan. But the whole issue was framed that way. It’s a shame to say, but as a society we aren’t ready yet to allow a party that draws inspiration from Islam to play a significant role.”
Should we see DENK and Nida as valuable additions to Rotterdam’s political scene?
“Certainly. In fact: I believe they are a necessary part of the emancipation process for a growing group of Rotterdammers with a non-Western background. We will be hearing more and more from this group, and they will become more and more vocal.”