External Affairs

From Social Media Use to Anti-Islamic Rhetoric, Similarities in Indian and Dutch Election Campaigns

While there are some striking similarities, the Netherlands' participatory representative democracy highlights what's missing in India, especially when the space for debate and discussion is increasingly under siege.

Beste Sarthak, Wat ben ik trots, en wat ben ik blij’ (Dear Sarthak, I am so proud and I am so glad), read the first line of the congratulatory email in Dutch sent to me by the leader of the GroenLinks party, Jesse Klaver. This email from the new and by now the highly popular leader of the green left party in the Netherlands is in continuation to many such I have been receiving from his party. I had signed up to their website as a part of a small study I undertook as a researcher observing and analysing the Dutch parliamentary elections. Having closely observed and analysed two crucial assembly elections in India – in Maharashtra and Bihar – as part of my doctoral thesis on informal politics in the country, I instinctively took to studying the Dutch elections to measure the contrast between Indian and Dutch elections.

There are, in fact, quite a few startling contrasts between elections in both countries, especially with regards to the size of the electorate, the nature of the party system and the electoral system used in both the countries – the Netherlands uses the proportional representation system, while India uses the first-past-the-post system. Of course, given the divergence in the economic and social structures of both countries, there are also remarkable differences in the issues that matter in elections. However, the kind of similarities one can witness in the campaign politics in both countries is indeed an eye opener.

In the recently concluded Dutch parliamentary elections, I studied the election campaign closely, following the campaign style and method of the GroenLinks. The party has a recent history of close to 30 years since its emergence in 1989 from a stitching together of four left-wing parties, including the Dutch communist party. Given its progressive and environment-friendly politics, the party is especially popular among young voters, and in the 2017 campaign, I could witness some of the tactics that the party used in spreading their message across in an energetic campaign.

The campaign ended up being a huge success as the GroenLinks registered a staggering win of 14 seats, up by ten seats from the four parliamentary seats it had won in 2012. While the party is ranked fifth in terms of the vote share, its 8.9% vote share is courtesy a huge increase of +6.6 % votes. In a total electorate of 12.8 million people, this number might not be a numerical extravagance like most of the elections in India, but this is certainly a significant indicator of the choices of the Dutch voters. With a record turnout of 80% voters who had the option to choose from as many as 28 parties in this election, an enormous 6.6% rise in votes for the green left party is definitely an indicator of the increasing popularity and relevance of issues related to environment and climate.

Issues in the election

The general media focus across the world was on the anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic rhetoric of Geert Wilders, leader of the right-wing Party For Freedom (PVV). The PVV, led by Wilders, was, in fact, leading in the opinion polls for quite some time in the run up to the election, forcing anti-immigration and anti-Islamic views to the mainstream of the election debates. The PVV’s view was that the tolerant Dutch society was being overpowered by an upsurge of incoming immigrants, especially those of Turkish and Moroccan origins, and the party vowed to cut back on immigration-friendly policies.

Dutch far right Party for Freedom (PVV) leader Geert Wilders campaigns for the 2017 Dutch election in Spijkenisse, a suburb of Rotterdam, Netherlands, February 18, 2017. REUTERS/Michael Kooren

Dutch far right Party for Freedom (PVV) leader Geert Wilders campaigns for the 2017 Dutch election in Spijkenisse, a suburb of Rotterdam, Netherlands, February 18, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Michael Kooren

If voted to power, the party also promised to shut down all the mosques in the country, in what was seen as a highly divisive and emotional appeal to the conservative right-wing supporters. Wilders, the leader of the PVV and the man who came to embody this (dark) side of the Dutch election, became the face of this kind of populist rhetoric. The abundant media coverage his politics attracted added these issues into the Dutch political discourse. This even forced the liberal party’s prime minister, Mark Rutte, to increasingly position himself close to this line of politics, which bordered on the thin wedge between inclusive tolerance and exclusionary rhetoric. Rutte’s party, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), finally emerged as the single largest party with 33 seats but lost eight seats and around 5% votes from its last performance in the 2012 elections.

While the green left party took advantage of this receding support base of the liberal party, another factor which helped the GroenLinks emerge stronger than ever before was the dissatisfaction among the voters with the Dutch Labour Party. The Labour Party, which was in the ruling coalition with the liberal party for five years, lost 29 seats and close to 19% vote share, as it struggled to connect with its supporters after major withdrawals on its election promises made in the last campaign in 2012. A large part of the Labour supporters got drawn towards the charismatic appeal of the green left leader, who was being hailed as “Jessiah” during the campaign.

Dutch Green Party (Groen Links) leader Jesse Klaver campaigns outside a train station in Leiden, Netherlands March 14, 2017. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Dutch Green Party (GroenLinks) leader Jesse Klaver campaigns outside a train station in Leiden, Netherlands March 14, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Dylan Martinez

Jesse ‘Jessiah’ Klaver had a unique opportunity in his half-Moroccan background to showcase first-hand the successful integration of immigrants into the liberal and tolerant Dutch society. Even his mother’s roots were traced back to Indonesian origins. Talking about issues of clean energy, cutting down on coal thermal plants, laying taxes on the polluters, ending subsidies for fossil fuel usage and rewarding and promoting research and development of clean fuel sources instead, Klaver made an instant connect with the youth voters, many of them first-time voters. The increasing speculation and skepticism with which the rise of right-wing populism and its agenda of ethnopopulism is spreading across the western world, starting from Brexit to the Trump presidency, had a large number of young voters anxious and interested in the Dutch elections. Speaking to many university students in Leiden, this anxiety about the future of their country’s politics was clearly visible.

The campaign

There is definitely a visible difference in the campaigns of the Dutch and Indian election. Roaming around Amsterdam or Rotterdam, the absence of huge banners and hoardings covering the length and breadth of big cities is striking for an Indian researcher. Being used to the sight of huge hoarding and banners of Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar advertising their respective brands of development across the streets of Patna, I was struck by the absence of any such advertising in the Netherlands. Even the venues of the election debates of ‘meet-ups’, which many parties conducted to reach out to the voters, did not have any huge banners or hoardings encircling the venues. Many university students connected with Klaver through the ‘meet ups’ which Groenlinks organised actively across several cities in the Netherlands.

Taking to university students in cities like Utrecht, Leiden, Nijmegen, Maastricht and The Hague, these meet ups drew a large number of students and gave them an opportunity to listen to Klaver or other party leaders and interact with them. Party nominees like Suzanne Kroger, who was a Greenpeace activist before she took the plunge into green left politics, used these meet ups to not only interact with the voters who supported their policies but also to effectively persuade the floating and non-committed voters. Other parties like Democrats 66 (D66), Christian Democratic Appeal and Party for the Animals also used meet ups as an effective platform for reaching out to the voters.


A supporter holds a placard showing Dutch Green Party (GroenLinks) leader Jesse Klaver. Credit: Reuters

The university spaces were also used effectively for organising debates, where all the party representatives came on one platform to speak on issues related to the election and voters, students especially were encouraged to ask them questions about their ideas and policies if elected to power. This is a vital aspect of participatory representative democracy, which is rapidly reducing in India as the space for debates and discussion in Indian universities is increasingly under siege.

The PVV, on the other hand, did not focus much on the dialogue and debates approach of campaigning. Wilders instead stressed more on a uni-directional flow of information declaring and setting the agenda from his Twitter handle, which has over eight lakh followers. Not leaving much to the imagination, the cover page of his Twitter handle has the words ‘Stop Islam’ written in bold letters. Wilders hardly made any public appearances throughout the campaign and attended very few of the television debates. In the absence of big rallies and election meetings, which dominate the political imagination in India, Dutch voters heavily rely on the television debates to listen to the alternate perspectives and decide on their voting choice.

Apart from the television debates, there is a computer application called StemWijzer (vote wisely) developed by the pro-democracy organisation called ProDemos. This application enables and assists voters to make a vote choice on the calculation of their position to 30 propositions based on the relevant issues in the elections. The voters can use the application to record their preferences on issues ranging from immigration policy to jobs, healthcare, education and elder care. This preference list is then matched with the party positions on each of these issues. After this, statistical calculations are done between these policy positions to determine the party which is closest to the voter’s preference. Almost everybody I spoke to, irrespective of age and education level, talked about using the application at least once to determine their vote choice. This is in sharp contrast to the ethnic, religious, regionalistic, monetary and even clientelistic considerations that determine the vote choice of many Indian voters.

In the ground-level campaigning, the Dutch elections were remarkably bereft of any use of money, either to influence voters or to mobilise the campaign activists. The GroenLinks party campaign, which I closely observed, was very organic in nature as the campaign activists gathered on their own accord in a common meeting point in the evenings and split into teams of two or three to go for door-to-door canvassing for votes on pre-determined routes. The door-to-door canvassing in the Netherlands is not a common method for campaigning as in a highly individualistic Dutch society, one does not usually go about knocking on strangers’ doors without prior appointments. However, the GroenLinks decided to use this method to increase their visibility. Often the door-to-door campaigning meant talking to the door quite literally as many voters addressed the campaigners through their answering machines without even opening the door. A scenario quite unimaginable in India, where even low-key election campaigns draw sizeable crowd of spectators and onlookers. After the end of an evening of campaigning, the campaigners retired back in their groups to further discuss their strategies and plans for the next day of campaigning. However, there was no mention of any payment for food or fuel (for transportation) being provided to them for their effort in the campaigning. This again was in stark contrast to the Indian election campaigns, where parties and candidates are known to spend a lot of money on their campaign activists, feeding them with food and their vehicles with fuel for the entire duration of the campaign.

However, there is a lot of similarity in the social media campaigns across both the elections. Facebook, Twitter and emails are of course used systematically by the Dutch political parties in order to reach out to their voters in a big way. Indian political parties also use Facebook and Twitter, especially the Twitter handles and Facebook pages of prominent party leaders like Modi, Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal. WhatsApp messaging, on the other hand, is used with almost equal intensity in political campaigns across both the countries. The D66 party had specially designed WhatsApp messaging lists with phone numbers of voters categorised according to their level of closeness to the party ideology. The goal was to use WhatsApp messaging effectively to persuade the swing of floating voters. The GroenLinks party especially called for the party sympathisers to become their campaign ‘Apptivists’ and circulate the party’s messages through WhatsApp. This bears resemblance to the extensive use of WhatsApp messaging groups by both the BJP and Congress to spread information (and also rumours and allegations) across voters in both urban and rural areas.

Engaging campaigning

The GroenLinks ended their enthusiastic campaign with a big ‘meet up’ at a concert hall in Amsterdam, which was attended by around 5,000 people. An equal number of people were watching the live streaming of the event on Facebook. This was advertised as the big campaign event and was a fitting conclusion to the hectic and vibrant campaign led by Klaver. The event was akin to the kind Modi had addressed at Madison Square Gardens, New York, or in Wembley, London. The stage was vibrant and exuded energy. The green colour was predominant in the display and in the lightings. There were rappers and musicians of immigrant origins who performed on stage to motivate people to vote and vote wisely. There were motivational speakers who reiterated the importance of making a careful vote choice, especially in the divisive times that we are living in.

Then there was ‘Jessiah’, who was greeted by an energetic crowd. His speech and body language were a mix of Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau. Klaver spoke mostly about the inclusive society that his party envisaged for the Netherlands and did not shy away from reinforcing the importance of the issues of climate and environment in these elections. He urged the voters to leave behind a cleaner, greener and fairer society for the generations ahead and a society which is inclusive and tolerant of everyone. This simple message delivered by a 30-year-old leader in a very unprovocative manner and with the utmost conviction did touch a chord with the large crowd, who burst into cheers in support of ‘Jessiah’. The voting patterns on the polling day, less than a week later, proved the impact his message had among the voters, as GroenLinks emerged as the big surprise in the 2017 elections.

The GroenLinks campaign proved the importance of an engaging and energetic campaign in electoral politics. Despite having an easy to spread rhetoric and eye-catching slogans of ethnopopulism, the PVV could not perform as well as it was hoping to. Towards the end of a long fought campaign, the PVV election machinery lost much of its steam in the simple tweets of their leaders. His decreasing frequency of television appearances only added to the decline of the party’s popularity. It also helped that other right centre liberal parties, like VVD, soon caught on the bandwagon of the immigration anxiety and declared their strong positions on the issue, almost matching up in tone with the PVV rhetoric in the subtlest of forms.

The GroenLinks, on the other hand, used the anti-immigrant agenda as a starting point in their campaign but shifted gears at the right time to stress on the environment and climate issues, weaving them into the narratives of inclusiveness and tolerance of culture and diversity. In a manner, like Wilders, Klaver too mainstreamed the politics of environment and climate related issues. If India’s rapidly changing political discourse is leading up to a development model that can be communalised, then the Netherlands has shown how to bring the environment and climate change into mainstream politics.

The author is thankful to Dr. Ward Berenschot, KITLV for his assistance.

Sarthak Bagchi is a doctoral fellow at Leiden University Institute for Area Studies.