MARK TURIN Distant Neighbours



© Mark Turin, 1997

Did we have a General Election here in Holland about 4 months ago, or did I just dream that one up? If you were out of the country for anything more than a day around the beginning of May, or working very hard for a week or so, you would be forgiven for not knowing that the electorate had just exercised its democratic right.

Yes, I am being facetious, but I stand by the general point. Having 'experienced' elections in Britain and even in the United States (far worse), the Dutch one passed without much ado about anything at all and no hu-ha-ha whatsoever. The damp squib of the lowlands. In a way, there is a great deal to be said for this pragmatic approach to voting, especially since everyone knows that it makes little difference to anything anyhow. It seems that the "if it works, don't fix it" rule of Dutch life applies here as well as everywhere else. Even our very own Leids Universitair Weekblad forwent the opportunity for some biting political satire on its front page of Issue 31, one day after the election, choosing instead to opt for a leader on the need for better protection of witnesses. Glad to see, nevertheless, that our back page team was pulling it's weight nevertheless with 'Distant Neighbours' giving us a run down of what went down. Thank you, Ron Rijghard, for caring. Just to dwell on this a little longer: admittedly the paper probably had to be put to bed before the first results were out, but still not even one column on the front page providing some overview or analysis? It's not that I particularly mind either, but it is remarkable for its lack of prominence. Was the election talked about over dessert with any of the friends or family I had dinner with in the preceding weeks? No. Was it being discussed in the morning coffee break by my academic colleagues in the department? No. So·and here's the real question·if people are seemingly so apathetic, then what on earth possessed the electorate to come out so strongly in favour of the 'progressive' parties, such as GroenLinks?

In all my political naivetˇ, I have always assumed that people who vote left-of-centre have a tendency to talk about it while those voting right-of-centre stay quiet about it until the very end. Perhaps, like many other things, this is simply not true in Holland. Either that, or people are just very private about their politics. The only hypothesis that I can possibly come up with to explain this interesting social fact is that since everyone knows that no single party will form a majority government on its own, and since therefore any cabinet will have to be a carefully-balanced coalition, it doesn't matter at all what you vote since the inevitable coalition cabinet will mediate a working path between and through all views, and therefore you might as well make a protest vote or vote for what your socialist alter-ego would vote for were this world a better and fairer place. That might be a long sentence, but I can't see a way around it. Intriguing then that the Italian journalist and commentator, Luigi Barzini, entitled his chapter on the people of the lowlands "The Careful Dutch". But more about that next week.