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During the Dutch elections in March this year, voting behaviour of people with a migration background will be studied for the first time at national level. 'Something is happening', states UvA political scientist Floris Vermeulen, 'voting behaviour is changing and multicultural parties are gaining ground.'

Floris Vermeulen, associate professor at the department of political science at the University of Amsterdam (picture by Bas Uterwijk)

Voting behaviour of people with a migration background has been studied in Dutch local elections since the 1990s. This year marks the first time this will be done in the national elections in March as well. UvA political scientist Floris Vermeulen observes that engagement with the political process among certain groups remains consistently low, voting behaviour changes and multicultural parties emerge. 

‘Voters with a migration background’, who are we talking about?

‘We began our study into political participation at the University of Amsterdam’s Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies (IMES) in the 1990s. At that time, we still spoke of the “ethnic minority vote”. Nowadays, we refer to the vote of people with a migration background. Our study specifically looks at so-called first and second-generation migrants, meaning everyone who was either born abroad or has at least one parent who was born abroad. In Amsterdam, our study focuses on the three largest groups, which are comprised of those with a Surinamese, Turkish or Moroccan background.’

Why focus on these groups in particular?

‘You always have to be careful with categorisation. There’s a risk of stigmatisation by focusing on this specific element of a person’s background or identity. At the same time, we know that political participation is very low among these groups. This was the case back in the 1990s when we launched our first study, and it’s still true today. We’re talking about a voter turnout of 25% among people with a Surinamese or Moroccan background, compared to almost 60% among the entire Dutch population. This means that 75% of these groups consistently don’t vote, which is significant and problematic. Groups that consistently participate less are also heard less and represented less. That's why it is important to know what motivates them to vote, or not, and whom they vote for. We’re also interested in tracking developments in voting behaviour.’

Why focusing on local elections?

‘Groups with a Surinamese, Turkish or Moroccan background are much more strongly represented at this level, and their vote has much more of an impact. While a party like DENK can become a major force in Amsterdam politics, it’s much more difficult for them to gain many seats nationally, because their support base is much smaller compared to that of other national parties. Another factor is that newcomers to the Netherlands are granted local voting rights after only five years of residence, so more people can vote locally. And it is easier to stand for election at the local level.’

What about the study into the national elections?

‘This year, we’re conducting a study into voters with a migration background at the national level for the first time. The National Election Study (NKO), which is coordinated by the University of Amsterdam and Radboud University, will pay special attention to this group of voters. Concurrently, the Netherlands Institute for Social Research is also conducting a large-scale quantitative study into political participation, in which we at the UvA are also involved. We expect the outcomes of these studies to be published in the course of this year. The research into municipal elections that we always conduct ourselves is often very expensive, because we have to hold so-called “shadow elections”, which means we stand outside polling stations to ask people about their vote. This is because we can't link election data to the population register.’

Why for the first time this focus on the national elections?

‘We’re conducting such a voter study into the national elections for the first time this year because something is happening. In recent years, many mainstream parties, from the VVD on the right to the SP on the left, have shown a strong aversion to themes such as immigration and diversity. This is a phenomenon that we first encountered among populist parties in particular. Mainstream parties have partly adopted this, making the anti-immigrant and anti-Islam discourse very influential in the Netherlands. This naturally has an impact on the voting behaviour of the people concerned: voters with a migrant background and especially voters with a Turkish or Moroccan background.’

‘In addition, mainstream parties that have traditionally been able to count on many migrant votes, such as the PvdA, are increasingly struggling to represent this constituency properly. The PvdA still attracts votes with its socioeconomic views, but its progressive sociocultural views are often at odds with this constituency’s more conservative values. Furthermore, the mainstream parties are failing to find appealing candidates with roots in the community among their supporters. Since 2006, the PvdA has seen a stagnation in the number of its politicians with a migration background.’

The anti-racism movement could put even more wind in the sails of multicultural parties

‘At the same time, we are seeing that new multicultural parties such as DENK, NIDA and BIJ1, which previously struggled electorally, are now gaining ground. The rise of these multicultural parties has driven turnout among local supporters in particular, but they are also playing an increasing role at the national level. The anti-racism movement will put even more wind in the sails of these parties. It is therefore very interesting to see what will happen in the coming national elections: will the new parties be able to win seats, and how many will they win? And how will the mainstream parties fare?’

Tunahan Kuzu of DENK
Tunahan Kuzu of DENK

How do you rate the chances of a party like DENK?

‘The power of DENK is that it has an enormous network that it can directly tap into. That way, it knows what motivates its supporters and can get people to turn out who never voted before. That’s impressive, because we are not talking about a single homogeneous group, but a very diverse one. It should be noted, however, that there is a big difference between the local and national levels. At the national level, DENK has a much smaller voter base compared to other parties. Also, while DENK provides a powerful response against anti-immigration discourse in the short term, its long-term vision is obscure, and it’s not clear how it will work with other parties to address structural problems, such as discrimination on the labour market and educational disadvantages. At the end of the day, it really can’t do this on its own.’

‘A first measure of the success of parties like DENK and BIJ1 will be the direct outcome of the elections. If they’re able to put themselves on the map, we can conclude that turnout among their supporters was high and their support will be lasting. For the mainstream parties, we can’t immediately deduce this from the results, so we have to wait for the outcomes of the various studies.’

All this focus on voting behaviour, is this really that important?

‘The emphasis on formal political participation, like casting your vote, also has certain drawbacks. Many groups may not participate in elections but are socially and politically active in other ways, such as through lobbying, protesting or being active in a civil society organisation. At the same time, casting your vote is a direct way of gaining real political influence, and it’s important to be able to get elected and thus enter Parliament. The risk of not voting, or not participating politically, is that people start to cut themselves off from society and begin to feel an enormous sociocultural distance from it. This is not good for the groups themselves, nor for society as a whole. In the end, both sides need to make an effort.’

Dr. F.F. (Floris) Vermeulen

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Programme group: Challenges to Democratic Representation