Immigrants Leapfrog Natives Into Local Gov’t

Immigrants leapfrog natives into local government

By John Tyler
Radio Netherlands Worldwide
Published on : 11 March 2010 – 9:49am

Dozens of immigrant candidates pushed aside colleagues with greater seniority to get elected to Dutch local councils in last week's elections.

They did this by getting more personal votes than others higher on their party's list of candidates.

This is not so unusual in the Netherlands, particularly in local elections, says Meindert Fennema, Professor of Political Theory at the University of Amsterdam. He explains the workings of the immigrant lobby.

How personal votes work

When the Dutch go to the voting booth, whether for elections to the national parliament or to municipal councils, they cast a vote for a political party. That is generally done by checking the name at the top of the party's list of candidates – the party leader.

But one can also check a name further down on the partys list, thus choosing a person as well as a party. This is called a preference vote.

In other words, a candidate in a Dutch election has two ways to get elected. He or she can be high enough on the partys list of candidates to take one of the seats allocated to that party under the proportional representation system.

Or a candidate can get enough personal votes to be elected, regardless of where he or she stands on the partys list.

More about the Dutch voting system

Its a well-known phenomenon that well-organised immigrants vote for their candidate, man or woman, and in that way, these candidates fairly easily get onto the city council. After all, it doesnt take that many personal votes.


But it appears to have happened on a larger scale this year than ever before. (National results are not yet available.) In every major city, and many medium-sized cities in the provinces, candidates of immigrant background have jumped ahead of their colleagues.

In Amsterdam, Ahmed Marcouch, born in Morocco and raised here in the Netherlands, got nearly as many personal votes as the leader of his party (even though he was number 29 on the party list). In Utrecht, two immigrant candidates got elected this way, in Rotterdam one. (See below for a partial list of cities where immigrants got elected through personal votes.)


In perhaps the most extreme example, in the southern city of Helmond, the Labour Party saw four of its candidates pushed aside. The party got enough votes for six seats on the city council. But the numbers three to six on the list of candidates, all of whom are native Dutch, were passed by. Four candidates of immigrant background further down the list drew enough personal votes to get onto the council.

This has led to some consternation in the Labour Party in Helmond. This is a medium-sized city of some 88,000 inhabitants, about twenty percent of whom are of non-western immigrant background. But according to the election results, two-thirds of the Labour Party caucus on the city council would be immigrants. And all male. That is not very representative.

In the meantime, one of those candidates of immigrant background has decided not to take his seat, in favour of a female candidate higher on the list.

But the issue remains: is it good to have so many immigrants chosen by personal votes?


Addressing this question in the wake of the previous municipal elections back in 2006, Labour Party leader Wouter Bos expressed his concern that too much expertise was being lost. The party compiles its list of candidates in part based on experience, and those further down the list were replacing more experienced candidates.

Professor Fennema says this is inevitable.

This happens with every renewal. When the aristocrats had to give up their place in politics, they said the same thing. Every time a new group participates in the political process, some expertise is lost.

Dutch politics is currently going through such a renewal. Politicians of immigrant background can be found at every level, from city council to mayor to the Dutch cabinet. ]

Ertan Isik, of the Labour Party in Eindhoven, was elected to the council with personal votes. Of Turkish parentage, Mr Isik has lived in the Netherlands for 33 years now. He is tired of the whole discussion.

Local councils and the number of immigrants elected through personal votes :

Alphen aan de Rijn 2
Arnhem 3
Den Bosch 1
Deventer 2
Dordrecht 6
Eindhoven 1
Emmen 1
Enschede 4
Helmond 4
Middelburg 1
Rotterdam 1
Tiel 1
Utrecht 2

I dont want to be regarded as an immigrant. No, Im just a citizen with a certain background and certain capabilities. Thats how I want to be seen, and not just because of my background, with whatever prejeduces that brings. I find that inappropriate, and, as a matter of fact, insulting.

But the discussion continues, not the least because party bosses appear to have underestimated the strength of the immigrant vote in these municipal elections. One way or another, immigrants are finding their way in Dutch political life.