A most curious election result

Something extraordinary happened in yesterday’s provincial elections in the Netherlands. It wasn’t a landslide of any sort; in fact the right-wing liberals of the VVD held on to their lead. Neither was there a new populist movement – and the Netherlands have seen rather a few over the past 15 years – that took the provincial parliaments by storm. What was remarkable, and I believe unprecedented, is that none of the parties secured more than one-sixth of the vote.

That’s right. Overall the VVD secured the biggest number of seats in these elections with just shy of 16 percent of the vote. Five other parties each polled between 10 and 15 percent nationally. The combined vote share of the three most successful parties in these elections fails to even hit 45 percent. Indeed in ten of the Netherlands’ 12 provinces, a minimum of four parties are needed to form a majority government.

The fragmentation of the political landscape in the Netherlands has been a gradual process, punctured by various shock results. The country’s undiluted proportional representation system has accommodated a tradition of political diversity, with new parties finding few obstacles on their way into parliaments. Often the political lifespan of such new parties has been short, particularly if they ran on a single-issue ticket. Having said that, some parties that made their entry into politics in my lifetime have become part of the fabric of Dutch politics with representation at all levels.

While the rise of new political parties is one aspect of a two-sided story, the decimation of formerly dominant parties is the other. In the general election of 1989, the christian-democrats (CDA) and social-democrats (PvdA) together obtained more than two-thirds of the vote. Yesterday’s result puts them on less than 25 percent combined. Oddly, this has not forced these former giants into the political margins. It would still only take a minor swing one way or the other for CDA or PvdA to be the Dutch voters’ top choice again – for what that is worth of course.

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The 75 seats in the Dutch senate, which will be allocated on the basis of yesterday’s election results, will be divided between 12 political parties. Progressive liberals (D66), socialists (SP) and anti-immigration populists (PVV) will be present in similar numbers to VVD, CDA and PvdA. Other groups will include the animal rights party, the 50-plus party for senior citizens and two religiously-guided parties of protestant signature.

It will be worth keeping an eye on Dutch politics in the next few years. While the Netherlands have a long history of multi-party democracy, the balance of power has never been as delicate as it is now. Could this fragmentation be a blessing in disguise and result in greater representation of the electorate’s diverse priorities in decision-making, or will it expose the limitations of proportional representation?

Should the political parties fail to devise a credible way of working together constructively, how will voters respond: what would a vote against fragmentation look like?

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The thought that opened the gate

What is common does not necessarily make sense. But the more common something is, the less inclined we are to question its good sense. We are programmed to wonder about the extraordinary, whilst blindly accepting the ordinary.

Yet, sometimes, you suddenly stop to wonder about something that until then had been too ordinary to incite a thought. Next, you wonder how on earth you never wondered about it before. At this point it is already too late: you will not be able to put the thought to rest again, and its subject will never return to the zone of your mind where things too common to think about live.

This happened to me last Sunday, when I was out leafleting in my local area. Street, pavement, gate, steps, door, letterbox, steps, gate, pavement, gate… Gate. Gate? So wonder struck. No longer was my focus on the ‘how’ – how do I open this gate without losing my momentum and without causing inconvenience to residents – it was suddenly firmly on the ‘why’ – why is this gate here?

In London, virtually every house that doesn’t open directly to the street has a gate at the bottom of its entry path, usually integrated into a wall or fence that makes up the property boundary. They tend to be made of metal or timber, open inwards, and have a simple closing mechanism.

Garden gate in PeckhamDespite their commonness, there is great variety to be found. Gates that creak (most of them) and gates that don’t. Gates that run aground halfway in. Gates one needs to lift in order for the closing mechanism to work. Gates with a polite note that says ‘Please close the gate’. Gates with a polite note that says ‘Don’t slam the gate’. Gates with a polite note that says ‘Wet paint’. Gates at the bottom of a long and winding garden path. Gates that are no further than three feet from the front door.

So let’s spend a moment thinking about the practical use of the gate. True, the sound of it opening, if it’s one of those creaky ones, can alert the resident to the imminent arrival of a visitor, delivery person or intruder. And the sound of it slamming shut may signal the departure of said individual. Furthermore, we could take into account gates’ significance to employment, not only for the fencing and gating industry, but also for the Royal Mail, who in the absence of gates would not be able to justify their current numbers of delivery staff.

Beyond that, I am at a loss for pro-gate arguments. They are not terribly effective at preventing anything from entering or leaving, nor do they often represent a distinct embellishment to the property. I’m not aware of them being a haven for wildlife in any way, shape or form, or of their contribution to pedestrian traffic regulation.

Would it be unthinkable to do away with them? De-gate London? Reuse and recycle all the metal and timber currently occupied to maintain a practice that is common but makes no sense? Not only could it save everyone a little bit of time (all the time), who knows it could also reset our minds as to how ordinary ‘closed, fenced and gated’ are in our living environment.

Just a thought.

What drives Frank and Claire Underwood?

This Friday, 27 February, marks the release of the third season of the Netflix drama series House of Cards, in which Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright star as a power hungry couple willing to make all kinds of sacrifices on order to tighten their grip on Washington DC’s political landscape.house-of-cards


I have only recently watched, binge style, the first and second season of the series, that see Spacey’s character Frank Underwood progress from an influential politician to a very influential politician, to a very very influential politician. His path to greater power is, to put it mildly, not without collateral damage: the ever growing pile of crimes, lies and scandals are a constant threat to his position, requiring him and his entourage to keep everything in check, by whatever means necessary.

To the viewer all of this is highly attractive. While Underwood keeps pushing the limit, committing acts that we are unlikely to sympathise with or forgive, he retains our loyalty by addressing us directly, putting us in a position of complicity. We too become obsessed with power, Frank Underwood’s struggle for power, and despite everything we want him to succeed.

While the machiavellian scenes in the Capitol and the White House are utterly entertaining, to me the real power of House of Cards lies in the dynamic between Frank and his wife Claire, played by Robin Wright. My favourite scenes are those where the two of them sit in the window of their Washington town house, late at night, smoking or not smoking, and take stock of where their project is at.

Claire Underwood is her husband’s equal, and beyond a doubt the only person in the world that he respects as such; indeed, she may be the only person with lasting power over him. Their marriage is indestructible, because it has become amalgamated with their project. It allows for infidelity on the physical side; fidelity to the project seems to matter a great deal more. The understanding that Claire and Frank have on this is beautifully portrayed, conversations between them often condensed into a few ambiguous phrases accompanied by meaningful regards.

Twenty-six episodes in and I still haven’t caught a glimpse of the Underwoods’ political substance. 

The question that seasons one and two left unanswered, I feel, is the big why? Twenty-six episodes in and I still haven’t caught a glimpse of the Underwoods’ political substance. Where they do take a stance it always seems to be on the grounds of pragmatic opportunism, granting them the easiest path to greater power. While Claire’s efforts for clean water and the persecution of sexual offenders may appear sincere, each time she proved quite ready to let go of her principles if that would give her the upper hand. Frank, meanwhile, only seems to engage in responding to urgent political problems, making him the master plumber of Washington DC.

There have been a few hints with regard to the why-question. Frank Underwood told us why he holds power over money, implying that money doesn’t last, while power “is the old stone building that stands for centuries”. Is that to say that greatness, being remembered as a historical figure, is what drives Frank? What is that worth if not associated with actual accomplishments? Alternatively, could he have become obsessed with power just ‘because he can’?

In another episode, during one of their window scenes of course, Claire wonders what it all is for and the couple seem to contemplate, ever so briefly, whether their quest for power needs deeper justification, with an implicit suggestion that they might consider having a child. Claire’s question, as well as her flirt with procreation, are swiftly brushed aside, like any other obstacle the Underwoods encountered on the way.

I sincerely hope that the third season will at least begin to answer this question by giving us greater insight in Frank and Claire’s pasts, which will no doubt contain some clues as to the origins of their hunger. Similarly, it should be revealing to see how they will deploy the power they currently hold – apart from keeping at bay the enemies they made on the way.

Submission – an almost perfect storm

Michel Houellebecq is an author with the capacity to alter, if not enhance, the way I see the world.

When, in his previous novel The Map and the Territory he had the character named Michel Houellebecq brutally murdered, I took that to imply that he was burying the author Michel Houellebecq too. The publication of his latest novel Submission, last month, was therefore a very welcome surprise.

The novel has had its dose of pre-publication controversy, owing to its theme: a France that elects a muslim president in the year 2022. It appears all the more sensitive in the light of the recent assault on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, which ironically coincided with the book’s release in France.

Soumission CoverA perfect storm

I found Submission to be a typical Houellebecq novel: exposing and exploring the instabilities of our civilisation, and using these observations to make a scenario that at first sight seems far-fetched (almost) credible. The author masters the art of creating a perfect storm out of several minor depressions, building up so seamlessly that the reader is bound to get sucked in.

The result of this perfect storm is, of course, the eventual inauguration of an extremely capable muslim politician as the president of France. But the new president is not at the centre of the story: we only become aware of the political changes through the observations of the novel’s narrator: an academic named François.

A turn to religion

With François we are in familiar Houellebecq-territory: an unpretentious lonesome Parisian man of a certain age with a modest appetite for socialising – more spectator than actor. François’ career is built around the work of 19th-century author Huysmans, whose quest for happiness eventually saw him becoming a devout catholic.

François’ observations of Huysmans are craftily intertwined with the changes to the world around him, allowing Houellebecq to portray France’s new regime not as a turn to islam, but much more as a turn to religion, complete with the re-valuation of the family as its cornerstone.

Europe’s suicide

Throughout the story François has a number of chance encounters with colourful characters, all of them male and capable of long monologues, who in turn contribute to an intricate analysis of modern-day Europe, thereby setting the scene for the extraordinary revolution that takes place while François eats his ready meals and undertakes his haphazard trips.

One of these characters brings up a parallel with the demise of the Roman Empire, quoting philosopher Arnold J. Toynbee who said that societies usually die of suicide, not assassination. The suggestion is that 21st-century Europe is worn and weak, and void of ideas as well as leadership, making it fragile enough to submit itself to an alternative ideology – that of islam.

Submission of woman to man

Submission wouldn’t be a Houellebecq novel if there wasn’t a constant lingering of François’ sexual desires, and many of his reflections on the changing society outside his apartment seem to centre on how they might affect his access to pleasure. While he quietly deplores the disappearance of the miniskirt from Paris’ streets, he develops a fascination for polygamy.

While on the surface the novel may emphasise the submission of man to religion, the implied submission of woman to man is as important a strand, and a more troublesome one to swallow. Houellebecq chose to circumnavigate any female perspectives in Submission, perhaps because that was convenient for his plot, but hopefully also to make a point to his audience – that even a moderate islamic rule would greatly affect gender equality. The same Houellebecq, after all, gave us the unforgettable motto “DEMAIN SERA FEMININ” in one of the early chapters of Atomised.

In all, Houellebecq once again fascinated me with his big observations, his diagnosis of present-day Europe, and his well-underpinned speculations on the next crossroads that our society may stumble upon. Recent events continue to vindicate his remarks on the volatility of the European electorate and the inadequacy of mainstream parties. However, his perfect storm is too engineered and will no doubt be tempered by the reality that women make up half of the electorate as well as an increasing proportion of the leadership.

We now own another bit of you: Agree or Cancel

The question how modern technology affects modern democracy has always been a popular one among writers of fiction, and the answer usually has a hint of dystopia to it. To me there is something irresistible about these ominous scenarios, probably because they speak to my fears about our inability to control what we create.

The_Circle_(Dave_Eggers_novel_-_cover_art) The latest bit of doom fiction I devoured was Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle (2013). It pictures a social media company – The Circle – that has superseded and incorporated all the current Internet giants and their services, most notably Google, Facebook and Twitter. As it grows, it inevitably turns its interest to politics, and soon enough politicians are coerced into needing The Circle to assert their credibility. The novel cleverly depicts this as a step-by-step process, where it is difficult to determine which of these steps might raise sufficient alarm for an independent authority to intervene. By the end of the story, it is all but inevitable that signing up to The Circle becomes mandatory for all citizens, and that their democratic participation will be channelled through the social network.

All the while The Circle profiles itself, very successfully, as a benign enterprise, a movement that changes the world for the better by making all information available, phasing out uncertainty – or in the lingo of The Circle, ‘secrets’. Full and total transparency, according to the company’s philosophy, will benefit every citizen, facilitating decision-making and exposing risks. In return for all this help, citizens only need to open themselves up to The Circle, sharing all that can be known about them so that the network can provide them with tailored services, offers and suggestions, resulting in better and more efficient lives.

This, of course, is the crux of the power relationship: in the end The Circle, just as its likes in the real world, provides programmes and algorithms – its users provide the data that enables it to dominate the Internet. The more information people supply – by posting on a social network, making an online purchase, or sending an email – the greater The Circle’s ability to aggregate relevant information, and the greater the draw to others to join the network. And true enough, virtually everyone will at some point succumb, as the vastness of the information and services offered will seem worth giving up a bit of one’s privacy.

“…today most of us are already citizens of the Internet as much as we are citizens of our countries or cities.”

Of the many thoughts provoked by The Circle, the most salient one to me is the question how our existing democratic mechanisms will fare as the digital symbiosis of Internet companies and citizens continues to thrive. While society moves in a direction that sees us rely ever more on Google, Facebook and others, we have little or no formal ways to influence their behaviour, with the only alternative to ‘Agree’ usually being ‘Cancel’.

I would argue that today most of us are already citizens of the Internet as much as we are citizens of our countries or cities. Such a dual citizenship indeed suggests that the significance of our offline citizenship is eroding, and that the democratic control that we have over our decision-makers covers only part of our existence. With the balance shifting towards online life, and with politicians gratefully embracing social media to comment, engage and campaign, I wonder how long it will take for elections to be replaced by a pop-up asking us whether we agree with the proposals or choose to be excluded.