The political participation of immigrants in the Netherlands

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by  Floris Vermeulen

The number of immigrants has increased significantly in the Netherlands in the last decades, which has had a substantial effect on different domains of Dutch society including the political one. Immigrants have become politically active in many different ways. By doing so they have voiced their political demands and wishes, and also tried to enter the precincts of power. But immigrants have also refrained from political activities in many instances. In this article I provide an overview of the most important developments regarding the political participation of immigrants in the Netherlands. Firstly, I briefly introduce the largest immigrant groups in the Netherlands, their backgrounds and some of their characteristics. Secondly, I explain the different ways in which immigrants have been politically active, informally and formally. To conclude I discuss the question whether the participation rates of immigrants can be considered high, average or low.

Immigrants in the Netherlands

At this time, around 20 per cent of the Dutch population is of foreign descent, encompassing first and second generation immigrants. In the big cities like Amsterdam, Rotterdam or The Hague this number is much higher. Recently authorities in Amsterdam announced that more than 50 per cent of the Amsterdam population was of immigrant background, in some city district this number was almost as high as 75 per cent. The four largest immigrant groups in the Netherlands originate from Turkey (2.3 per cent), Morocco (2.1 per cent), Suriname (2.1 per cent) and the Dutch Antilleans (0.8 per cent).

The first two groups are referred to as ‘guest worker’ groups, originally having come to the Netherlands to help satisfy the demand for labour in the booming Dutch economy of the 1960s. The influx of ‘guest workers’ was officially halted in 1973 when, during an economic recession, the Dutch government imposed an immigration ban affecting all guest worker countries. Guest workers already in the Netherlands were nevertheless entitled to send for their families, and many of the Turkish and Moroccan workers did. Family unification turned the two groups into a sizeable migrant population. Apart from this increase in size, family unification also changed the group’s demographic composition, as more Turkish and Moroccan women and children arrived in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Surinamese immigrants arrived mostly around 1975 when the Dutch colony Surinam (in the north of Brazil) became independent. Since independence caused a lot of economic and political uncertainty in Surinam, many Surinamese decided to leave their country for the Netherlands to escape this uncertain situation. Thus an exodus of more than fifty thousand Surinamese took place in the years 1974 and 1975. Before 1974, it was predominantly the Surinamese elite and middle class who emigrated, but people from other social classes and ethnic groups later left Surinam as well.

The Dutch Antilleans, situated close to the coast of Venezuela, are still part of the Netherlands. Their inhabitants’ immigration pattern has continued in the more recent decades as they may enter the Netherlands freely as Dutch citizens.

Overall the socio-economic position of these four immigrant groups is problematic, although we see a lot of diversity within these groups, with some immigrants doing much better than others. In general it is fair to say that the unemployment level, educational dropout rates, poverty rates, crime rates etc. are for many different reasons on average higher among the immigrant groups than among the native population.

There are some important differences characterizing these four groups that have a particular impact on their political participation: citizenship status and Dutch language skills. The prevalence of Dutch citizenship is of course a crucial characteristic when it comes to political participation. Being granted the Dutch nationality means enjoying full political rights and the possibility to participate in all domains of the political system. Not being accorded Dutch citizenship means less (but certainly not no) opportunity to participate politically.

Surinamese immigrants who came before 1980, as most of them did, and immigrants from the Dutch Antilleans hold Dutch citizenship. Turkish and Moroccan immigrants have for the most part not held Dutch citizenship when entering the country. At first many of these immigrants believed they would return home one day, when they had earned enough money or when the economic situation in their country of origin would have improved. Dutch citizenship was therefore for many of them not of utmost importance at the outset. In addition to that there were some formal barriers for acquiring Dutch nationality.

In the 1990s Dutch naturalisation laws were liberalized and important barriers were removed. For instance double nationality was allowed, which increased naturalisation rates among Turkish and Moroccan immigrants significantly. At present the level of Dutch citizenship among the two groups is almost equal, around 75 per cent of them have Dutch citizenship.

In terms of language abilities we also see clear differences between the four groups, especially within the first generation. As language can be an important factor in explaining political participation it is important to mention that especially among the first generation immigrants the Dutch language skills are on average higher among the Surinamese and Antillean immigrants than among the guest worker groups. Also the educational level of post-colonial immigrants tends to be a bit higher than among the guest worker groups.

Political participation of immigrants

Political participation exists in many different types and forms. A useful distinction is the one between formal participation (elections, elected office, etc.) and informal participation (civic participation in civil organisations, protest activities, social movement type of activities, etc.). In this description of the political participation of immigrants in the Netherlands I will focus mainly on the formal side, but it is important to briefly describe the informal side as well.

Informal political participation

Immigrant organisations of all kinds (cultural, recreational, religious, social or interest group) are important vehicles for the informal political participation of immigrants. Immigrants tend to first organise among co-ethnics before they enter mainstream native organisations. The reason for this is that certain groups formulate specific organisational demands (for instance religious ones as in the case of churches, mosques synagogues, etc.) or because the immigrants are looking for a familiar and secure environment that protects them from the outside world, which they may perceive as to a large extent unknown and perhaps even hostile.

In the Netherlands this pattern is visible as well. All major immigrant groups have established a large number of immigrant organisations. At first the Surinamese were particularly active (their first and still existing organisation was established in 1919 by Surinamese students), but later on other immigrant groups increased their organisational rates quickly. The Turkish immigrants have been especially active in this regard. Spurred by the different and active ideological and religious movements in Turkey itself a high number of foundations and associations was founded by Turkish immigrants in the Netherlands.

These immigrant organisations - and this applies to the organisations of all groups - are politically involved in many ways. In some cases they mobilise over certain issues, for instance the building of a neighbourhood Mosque, but also less sensitive issues like setting up a neighbourhood playground or a community centre. For all these projects, organisations need to interact with local and sometimes even national authorities and by doing so become politically active.

In more formal ways some of these organisations are involved in local and national advisory councils, often set up by national and local authorities so that immigrants may gain more access to the political system. But even if these immigrant organisations are not directly politically active, the fact that they bring immigrants together and involve them in a collective activity is a political act in itself. From research we know that at present the Turkish immigrant group is most active when it comes to having a lot of organisations in which co-ethnics are active. Also the percentage of people active in an ethnic organisation is highest among Turkish immigrants.

But not all informal political participation is conducted in these ethnic organisations. Mainstream organisations, such as labour unions, welfare organisations or leisure organisations of all types have seen an influx of immigrants. However, for all groups we see a significantly lower participation rate than that of the native Dutch population. For the most part this difference can be explained by social-economic factors, i.e. people with lower income and educational levels tend to participate less than people with higher income and educational levels. This also explains why we tend to see a slightly higher participation rate among Surinamese immigrants compared to other immigrant groups.

Formal political participation

Regarding formal political participation, the focus is on turn out rates and hence on the question of whether people who are eligible to vote actually use their right during elections in terms of party choice and elected offices. An important part of this formal political participation develops at the local level. At the local level immigrants tend to participate more than on the national level, mainly because the incentive to participate is higher and the obstacles are lower. For instance immigrants, regardless of their nationality, who have legally lived in the Netherlands for five years, have since 1986 the right to vote on the local level but not on the national level.

In terms of turn out rates on the local level we see that the Turkish immigrants tend to be most active in the Netherlands, followed by the Moroccan immigrants and then the Surinamese immigrants. To some extent this is surprising as the Surinamese seem to possess more resources (in terms of citizenship attainment, language skills and other socio-economic elements) than the other groups. Some Dutch scholars have explained this fact by focusing on the immigrant organisations. The Turkish immigrants are most involved in these ethnic organisations and their organisations are strongly connected. Their organisational base provides them a strong incentive to participate politically which is reflected in the high turnout rates at local elections.

Overall, left-wing political parties are most popular among immigrants in the Netherlands during local and national elections. This is explained by the fact that these parties seem to represent the interests of immigrants in the Netherlands best. Their tone is less anti-immigration compared to the right-wing or populist political parties in the Netherlands. An interesting mismatch between the secular Dutch left-wing political parties and many of the immigrants - especially the guest worker groups - is the religious affiliation of a majority of this immigrant population. From time to time this mismatch causes friction for the left-wing parties as their constituency is to a large extent non-religious.

Many representatives of immigrant origin have been elected on both the national and local levels in the Netherlands in the last twenty years. On the local level we see a clear increase in the number of councillors of immigrant background between 1994 and 2006. In 1994 73 councillors of immigrant background were elected during local elections, and in 2006 this number had increased to more than 300, which however still only amounts to about three per cent of the total number of councillors in the Netherlands. The number of councillors of Turkish origin has especially increased: At present more than half of the local councillors of immigrant background are of Turkish descent. In the larger Dutch cities we tend to find a higher percentage of councillors of immigrant background and also here the councillors of Turkish descent are a clear majority.

At the national level the Netherlands have also seen an increase in the number of representatives of immigrant background in the national parliament. After the elections of 2006 the percentage had even increased to more than 10 per cent, after the latest elections in 2010 this percentage has decreased a bit. Just as on the local level the representatives of immigrant background tend to be affiliated with the left-wing political parties, although an increasing number of representatives are affiliated with more conservative right-wing political parties and even populist parties which tend to have anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim standpoints.

As for people of immigrant background holding office on either the national or local level we also see a modest increase. Although no exact information is available we know that especially on the local level there have been more deputy majors, aldermen and even mayors of immigrant background appointed in the last 15 years. At the outset these officials were primarily of Surinamese descent, but lately more officials of Moroccan descent (for instance the mayor of Rotterdam, Aboutaleb) and to some extent also of Turkish descent have been appointed.

It is interesting to note that the head start of the Turkish immigrants regarding turn out rates and representatives is not matched by the number of elected officials. For instance in Amsterdam we find virtually no elected office holder of Turkish descent, whereas a number of Surinamese and Moroccan officials have been elected in the last years. To some extent this mismatch in Amsterdam can be explained by the fact that the size of the Turkish population is significantly smaller than the Surinamese or Moroccan immigrant population.

However recent research suggests that the strong and well organised Turkish community also has its downsides. Mainstream parties seem to be more reluctant to choose someone of immigrant background with strong ties to an ethnic constituency as these parties fear that this would increase the political influence of that particular constituency. In other words, the political parties in the Netherlands are interested in the votes of immigrant groups, but are afraid of what is sometimes termed ‘ethnic politics’. Politicians of Turkish descent seem to be suffering from this tendency of Dutch political parties more than politicians of other ethnic backgrounds.

How to evaluate the level of political participation among immigrants?

An important question in the discussion of political participation among immigrants in the Netherlands is how to evaluate their level of participation? In order to evaluate, we need to compare with other groups and other contexts and think a bit more about what these levels of participation signify. To begin with, the level of representation is obviously important in terms of democratic legitimacy, the degree to which immigrants feel attached to the political system, the degree to which they can gain access to the political system, etc. However, statistical representation does not automatically mean that the interests of all groups are well represented. Besides, other identities, such as class, gender, or age may be just as, or sometimes, even more important. Do these categories also need statistical representation? Furthermore statistical underrepresentation does also not automatically mean that the interests of certain groups are not well represented in a political system. Spokespersons of other ethnic backgrounds may do just as good a job, or sometimes even better.

However, scholars of immigration seem to agree for the most part that statistical representation is important, and whether it should be complete representation – having exactly the same percentage of representatives of a particular group as the percentage of that group in the entire population - or not is perhaps a less relevant question in this debate. In many European countries and cities there is hardly any statistical representation (or participation for that matter) of immigrants in the political system. Clearly this is a problem. From an international comparative perspective the Netherlands are doing quite well. On both the national and the local levels the statistical representation of immigrants in the political system is high.

Nevertheless, if we compare the rates of participation with the native Dutch population we still see a clear gap. Whatever form of participation we take, informal or formal, immigrants participate less than the native population. Socio-economic factors may roughly account for this gap but cannot fully explain it. As long as this gap exists it remains important for scholars and politicians to think about what this means regarding the level of access to the political system and whether measures should be taken to stimulate the participation of immigrants.

September 2011



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Floris Vermeulen is assistant professor at the department of political science and co-director of the Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies (IMES) at the University of Amsterdam.


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