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Dr Gerrit Voerman: Populist parties important in European elections

02 June 2009
Book cover Met het oog op Europa
Book cover Met het oog op Europa

The European Parliamentary elections are being held on 4 June. It is the seventh time that these elections will take place. Gerrit Voerman, Director of the Documentation Centre for Dutch Political Parties, recently published (with Nelleke van de Walle) Met het oog op Europa [With an eye to Europe], a book about the posters used by the parties in their election campaigns. According to Voerman, there’s actually something to choose this year, more than was the case in the past. This is partly due to populist and Euro-sceptic parties like the PVV and the SP.

The turnout at European elections has steadily decreased since 1979, says Voerman. ‘The turnout then was nearly sixty percent. In 1999 the turnout was about thirty percent.’ According to Voerman, this is because they are second-string elections. ‘Strasbourg and Brussels are just too far away. In addition, the European elections are not about power, as the elections to the Lower House of Parliament are.’ After all, the European Parliament has nothing to say about the European Council of heads of state and heads of government, who set out the lines in the European Union. However, the Parliament has gained more influence over the composition of the European Commission (the day-to-day management of the European Union), although the commissioners are directly appointed by the member states.

Choosing a chairperson

A poor turnout reduces the legitimacy of the European Parliament, Voerman has noticed. What can we do about that? ‘I’ve no magic wand I can wave. We can only try out a few things. One would be letting the European Parliament choose the chair of the European Commission, with the candidates from the various political streams setting out their programmes in advance.’ You could also give voters two votes, one for a national and the other for a European candidate (comparable with the German system). Voerman: ‘That would make the campaigns more European.’

National themes

Because they are second-string elections, national factors tend to play an important role in European campaigns, says Voerman. ‘Take the PvdA. When this party is in the opposition, it always places its campaign into a national context, for example by using slogans like A vote for the PvdA is a vote against the cabinet.’ This year, too, national themes are emerging in the run up to the elections. ‘The government cooperation with the PVV for example, or the freedom of expression. These things have nothing to do with Europe, of course, but everything with the attitude of the established parties towards Wilders.’


One of the things pointed out by Voerman in his book is that Dutch politics has become less enthusiastic about Europe. ‘Thirty years ago, all the major parties were explicit proponents of Europe. Only the small left-wing and right-wing parties like the CPN and the GPV were anti.’ That wide pro-European attitude changed in the 1990s. Politicians such as Frits Bolkestein and Pim Fortuyn were able to appeal to large groups of voters with their criticism of the European Union. The debate about Europe polarized.

A real choice

Voerman thinks that this is why there’s a real choice this year. ‘In the past, voters thought that it made no difference what they voted, all the parties were the same anyway. Now that’s much less the case. You’ve got the real fans, like D66 and GroenLinks, and parties that are more sceptical, like the VVD. The Liberals are in favour of economic integration, but are more critical about the rest. And this despite the fact that in the 1980s they were in favour of a federal Europe. The CDA is still pro-European, but at the same time emphasizes the Dutch identity. That was expressed in 2004 by their election slogan: For our own spot in Europe.’

Populist parties

And then there are of course the parties that completely reject current European cooperation, such as the SP and the PVV. ‘These more or less populist parties are doing well at this current juncture. In the past, voters were virtually welded to their parties. However, with depillarization, and certainly in the last ten to fifteen years, the relationship between party and voter has become much looser. This has created more room for outsiders who are anti-establishment and complain about the profiteers in Europe who don’t listen to the people.’

Important role

Voerman thinks that the populist parties fulfil an important role in the political system. ‘They speak for that part of the population that is dissatisfied and thus channel the dissatisfaction. However, the populist parties have it rather easy only having to criticize the established parties. They don’t have to cooperate and agree compromises, as the established parties do.’ The Euro-scepticism of the populist parties may even ensure a higher turnout. ‘We saw that in 2004, when for example the SP and the newcomer Europa Transparant got a lot of votes. Euro-scepticism is therefore not the same as disinterestedness. Objecting to a development is also a sign of involvement, even if it is not the way that the pro-Europeans would like to see.’

Gerrit Voerman & Nelleke van de Walle: Met het oog op Europa: Affiches voor de Europese verkiezingen, 1979-2009. Uitgeverij Boom. €15

Curriculum vitae

Gerrit Voerman (1957) studied history at the University of Groningen from 1977-1985, and he has headed the Documentation Centre for Dutch Political Parties (DNPP) at the University since 1989. In 2001 he gained his PhD with a thesis entitled De meridiaan van Moskou. De CPN en de Communistische Internationale (1919-1930) [The Moscow meridian. The CPN and the Communist Internationale (1919-1930], Amsterdam, 2001. He publishes extensively on political parties, including: Verloren illusie, geslaagde fusie? GroenLinks in historisch en politicologisch perspectief, [Lost illusions, successful merger? GroenLinks in historical and political perspective] Leiden, 1999 (with P. Lucardie and W.H. van Schuur); Om de stembus. Verkiezingsaffiches 1918-1998, [Around the voting box. Election posters 1918-1998] Amsterdam, 2002 (with D.J. Elzinga); and Zestig jaar VVD, [Sixty years of the VVD], Amsterdam, 2008 (with P. van Schie). Among other things, he is currently researching the way that political parties make use of new information and communication technology in their relationship with voters, and the phenomenon of party culture.

Dr Gerrit Voerman, tel. 050 363 6830, e-mail g.voerman

Last modified:05 January 2018 10.09 a.m.
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