DENK: The Long Needed Multicultural Party?

In November 2014, the PvdA (Dutch Labour Party) removed two MPs, Öztürk and Kuzu, from the party. This came after public disagreement with Asscher, the Minister for Social Affairs, over PvdA integration policy. In response, the two founded their own political party, “DENK” (meaning “think” in Dutch, but “balance” or “equal” in Turkish).

The party has recently won several battles in the war for media attention, firstly by supporting the Turkish government in arresting Dutch columnist Ebru Umar, and secondly when they were joined by television presenter Sylvana Simons, a prominent anti-racism campaigner and critic of Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”). In addition, they took on Farid Azarkan, the former chairman of the Dutch Cooperative Association of Dutch Citizens of Moroccan Descent.

However, what DENK hopes to achieve is not entirely clear, as there is a difference between what is written in its political manifesto and the actual statements made on party policy.

Officially, DENK stated that it wants to promote tolerance and equality. It agitates against the “we” versus “them” rhetoric which entered the Dutch political debate after 9/11.

Moreover, DENK accepts and approves of the diversity of backgrounds and culture currently present in the Netherlands. For instance, it is against the word “allochtoon” (literally: “of foreign descent”), which is the word commonly used to talk about immigrants and Dutch citizens of non-Western European or Anglo-Saxon descent (who are called “expats,” if discussed at all).

Similarly, DENK disapproves of the concept of “integration.” It says that Dutch society should accept the different cultures of all its citizens. This point of view was actually quite common in the Netherlands during the 1970s, according to Fleur Sleegers, author of In debat over Nederland (In Debate about the Netherlands).

What ties all these issues together, is an overarching problem of racism and discrimination, which they argue are present in Dutch society.

It backs up these statements with policy proposals and by recruiting a diverse group of figureheads. One of these proposals, for instance, is to create a racism register, which should keep track of individuals who have made racist remarks, and who should subsequently be banned from government service.

Moreover, DENK wishes to draw more attention to Dutch history related to multiculturalism: it wants labour migration monuments in each municipality, to remind us of the positive aspects of immigration, and it wants to change the former Ministry of Colonies into a museum about colonialism.

However, some of DENK’s statements fit uneasily with its purported goals. Some, such as the VVD (liberal-conservative party) who are critical of the new party, seem to think of DENK as “the long arm of Ankara,” in response to its support for Erdogan’s policies. For example, DENK did not reject the detention of columnist Ebru Umar two months ago, after she criticised Erdogan.

DENK also not only voted against recognition of the Armenian genocide, it asked for a roll-call vote. This meant that MPs who voted in favour of its recognition would be publicly identifiable. They then published a film online in which candidates of Turkish descent who voted in favour of recognising the Armenian genocide were shown.

Furthermore, in a tactic rather reminiscent of both Wilders and Erdogan, DENK regularly launches virulent critiques of “the media.” This is less problematic for their political ambitions because they mainly use social media to communicate with their supporters. However, if building bridges is the goal, launching attacks on “the media” and discrediting their truthfulness and integrity could easily backfire.

Criticism also comes from within the community of Dutch citizens with a Turkish background. For instance, Ayranci, chairman of the Turkish Labour Association told Zaman Vandaag that he finds DENK rather hypocritical for claiming to support democracy and tolerance, while staying silent about human rights abuse in Turkey. Ayranci mostly sees DENK as a homologue of Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV), as it similarly polarises the debate surrounding a Dutch multicultural society, and even feeds off the religious sensitivities of the Turko-Dutch community in the Netherlands.

Yet, by recruiting Azarkan and Simons, DENK could begin to lose its image as a “Turkish party.” How the presence of these two new figureheads will influence DENK’s policies will also determine DENK’s prospects.

A poll conducted since Simons joined DENK, by Peil, indicated that DENK will get two seats out of 150, and that these votes will predominantly come from Muslims. However, the campaigns have not started yet, so it is not clear yet on what platform DENK will run. Whether this will be a Turkish nationalist, an Islamic, a ‘non-white PVV’ or a broad anti-discrimination platform will determine the support the party gets.

In any case, DENK’s target group is not as likely to show up during elections. Maurice de Hond has estimated that the 9% of the population that non-Western Dutch citizens constitute, roughly translates to 9 out of 150 seats. So what kind of influence could different party platforms have on the party’s reach?

DENK could profile itself as a Turkish nationalist Islamic party. We should not forget that around 90,000 Turkish Dutch citizens voted for Erdogan in the last Turkish elections. If this is an indication of support for DENK, this would be sufficient for one seat.

Around 50% of the Turkish electorate in the Netherlands actually voted, meaning that the turn-out for Turkish and Dutch elections is roughly similar in the Turkish-Dutch community. This seems a somewhat unlikely scenario, given that DENK now exists of four rather influential figures, Kuzu, Öztürk, Simons and Azarkan.

These four all want to win seats in parliament, and a too Turkish nationalist platform would make it unlikely that they can all win seats, seeing the small constituency such a platform would cater to. If indeed only these 90,000 Turkish Dutch citizens would vote DENK, only Kuzu, as “lijsttrekker” (party frontrunner) would get a seat in parliament, something Öztürk, the party leader, would probably not like very much. So, for their own good, DENK should consider a broader platform.

Moreover, if DENK profiles itself as a Turkish nationalist party, it will never have an impact on Dutch politics. Other parties will not take DENK seriously as a partner, and might even create an implicit cordon sanitaire to block DENK from having any political influence.

Alternatively, DENK could have some success as a predominantly Muslim party, after all there are around 660,000 adult Muslims in the Netherlands who could potentially support a party specifically catering to them.

As an Islamic party DENK might have more influence than as a Turkish nationalist party, especially if it teams up with the SGP and ChristenUnie (two Christian parties) in fighting for freedom of religion. This completely depends on the salience of Islamic identity among Muslim voters. Around two or three seats in Parliament could be possible based on this platform. However, again it is dubious that DENK would achieve much when running on such a platform, seeing the relatively small size of the Muslim electorate.

The founders of DENK, Kuzu (left) and Öztürk (right).
The founders of DENK: Kuzu (left) and Öztürk (right).

In the third scenario, the “non-white PVV” scenario, Simons and Azarkan do not limit the Turkish nationalism of Öztürk and Kuzu, but simply add Moroccan nationalism and criticism of Zwarte Piet. This would mean DENK will never have a balanced programme which criticises racism and discrimination in a consistent way. It will rather be a party which uses the feelings of exclusion from Dutch society of Dutch citizens of non-Western descent by offering an amalgamation of unrelated, unattainable, and largely symbolic policies.

In the non-white PVV scenario it is quite unclear what will happen with DENK. It is doubtful that many Surinamese and Caribbean Dutch citizens, who face similar issues of discrimination as Turkish and Moroccan Dutch citizens, will be attracted to a party too closely associated with Turkish nationalism or Islam.

Being too vocal about these issues will mean that DENK will be less influential on topics such as discrimination on the labour market, on the sports field, and in education, as other parties are less likely to cooperate with a party which espouses Turkish nationalism. So, the more DENK runs on a Turkish nationalist or Islamist platform, the less non-Turkish or non-Muslim Dutch citizens background will be attracted to it.

However, in the fourth scenario, as a party which addresses discrimination and intolerance, DENK could have a lasting positive impact on the Dutch political debate. Racism and discrimination are at the very least perceived to be a problem by many non-white voters.

This reason alone makes it a topic that should get attention from politicians. Whether it will win a lot of votes, or whether it will influence the stance of other parties, in either case DENK can have a lasting impact on the public debate.

However, the success of DENK will largely depend on how salient discrimination is among non-white Dutch citizens, and how many of them will actually show up on election day. Potentially, DENK could reach citizens which have felt excluded from, or were uninterested in politics before. If it could mobilise these voters, DENK might have a grand future.

So, one major question remains: will DENK really aim to abolish so called “hokjesdenken” (literally “cubicle thinking”). That is, thinking in terms of racial divisions, or will it try to capitalise on one or more cubicles which were until then underrepresented in Dutch policies, only to reinvigorate the existing racial divisions?

This will determine how large DENK can become, and how much influence on Dutch politics DENK will have. In the former case, DENK could provide much-needed input in the debate on what a multicultural society should look like from the perspective of different cultural minorities. In the latter case, DENK might remain marginal in terms of seats, but will only increase the antagonism between “old Dutch” and “new Dutch” communities, by furthering and profiting from the tribal instincts which can be found in every human under the thin veneer of civilisation.

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