THE HAGUE: With anti-Islam Dutch MP Geert Wilders topping the polls ahead of next month’s elections, one small group is hoping to buck the trend: the country’s first party led by immigrants.
Denk, or “think” in Dutch, wants to fight what it calls “institutional racism” by setting up a national register of racist phrases and expressions; replacing the idea of “integration” with “acceptance” and calling for an official apology for the country’s past links to the slave trade.
Launched in 2015 by two MPs who were thrown out of the Labor party amid a row over its immigration policies, it has positioned itself ahead of the March 15 vote as the only true response to the anti-immigration, anti-Islam stand of Wilders and his far-right Freedom Party (PVV).
“It is unique in The Netherlands to have a party led by Dutch people with foreign roots,” said political expert
Sjaak Koening, from Maastricht University.
Critics say it employs some of the same bulldozer tactics as Wilders, and accuse it of cosying up to Turkey and its controversial President Recep Tayipp Erdogan, and seeking to divide the country which has gained a reputation for tolerance.
But the accusations are dismissed by a leading party member Farid Azarkan, who insisted Denk wants to be “the party of all Dutch people”.
“If Geert Wilders publishes a Photoshopped picture of a rival, is that not polarisation? If a Christian party says their God is better than ours, is that not polarization? If young people are excluded from society because they are Muslims, is that not polarization?” he asked.
“We want to write history, under the leadership of the children of immigrants,” he told AFP. “We want to take our place in democracy, and that happens via parliament.”
There are 28 parties competing for the ballots of 12.9 million eligible voters in March – a particularly fractured political landscape in a country already used to coalition governments.
Denk is hoping to win the support of some of the two million Dutch people who have at least one parent born outside of The Netherlands and the EU. And opinion polls say it could emerge with one to two seats in the new 150-seat lower house of parliament.
Denk’s “core argument is the idea that Muslims are demonized” after years of slogans and attacks by Wilders, said Geerten Waling, from Leiden University.
According to a poll by the EtnoBarometer institute some 40 percent of people of Turkish origin and about 34 percent of people with Moroccan roots will vote for Denk.
While Wilders’s party “is the party of the angry white man, you could say that Denk is the party of the angry brown man,” said political researcher Aziz el Kaddouri, quoted in Dutch media.
“They feel they have been abandoned, and say, ‘we are doing our best, but it is always suggested that our integration has failed’.”
Azarkan rejects Kaddouri’s label saying rather they are a party of “disappointed voters” fed up with traditional politics who finally “have the impression that there is a party which can make their voices heard.”
Although Denk and PVV are ideologically poles apart, there are parallels. Both were founded by MPs who left traditional parties. Both are very active on social media with large followings. Denk also regularly attacks the media, like Wilders, and resorts to shock headline-grabbing phrases.
The party is also not afraid of confrontation to push its agenda – its leader Tunahan Kuzu created headlines last year when he refused in the name of Palestinians to shake the hand of visiting Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
“They certainly have a populist approach, but I wouldn’t say yet that they are a populist party. They would have to go much further for that,” said Koening.
Waling believes Denk represents “quite a conservative Muslim group, mostly from Turkish conservatives in the Netherlands” who reject for example any moves to monitor Muslim organizations here, or to put forward motions referring to the “Armenian genocide”.
“But at least they are bringing new themes to politics and that is always good for democracy,” said Koening.