How ‘red’ disappeared from East Groningen: SP got sympathy, PVV got the vote

Never before has Grietje Streunding from Oude Pekela voted for a right-wing party. The Groningen was loyal to the SP until two weeks ago. Streunding (69) cast a “strategic vote” for BBB, she says in the Helling shopping center. “I thought: the SP will never get into government.” A statement by BBB party leader Caroline van der Plas was decisive: she spoke out against higher feed-in costs for solar panel owners. “I thought: well, let’s do that.”

The Netherlands has again voted more right. And nowhere else was this more visible on November 22 than in the municipality of Pekela. GroenLinks-PvdA and the SP achieved their worst election results in the country here. GroenLinks-PvdA won nationally, but lost a quarter of its voters in Pekela compared to the previous House of Representatives elections. The SP’s loss was even more painful: from 15.2 to 5.8 percent of the votes.

East Groningen is no longer ‘red’. The social democrats and communists dominated here for at least a century. In the House of Representatives elections of 2003 and 2006, PvdA, GroenLinks and SP were still in charge: they received two-thirds of the votes in East Groningen municipalities. These elections they did not get anywhere further than 15 to 18 percent.

Now East Groningen is the region of the protest vote. In Pekela, the PVV (42 percent) and BBB (8 percent) together received half of all votes – much more than nationally. 16 percent voted for NSC: slightly more than nationally.

For Grietje Streunding, redistribution from rich to poor, from ‘capital’ to ‘labor’ is no longer an important theme. For her parents that was the core: they voted communist, CPN. Her father participated in the wildcat strike in the Pekel strawboard industry in the late 1960s. Workers massively demanded higher wages and better conditions, led by the nationally known CPN politician from Pekela, Fré Meis.

While the SP puts the interests of employees first, BBB stands up for the interests of the business community much more. That’s fine, says Streunding, because the business community provides jobs. “You also have to keep work here in the region.”

‘Environment more important than workers’

Cornelis Dijk (77) used to vote for the socialist PSP, and now for the PVV. He still thinks redistribution is important. GroenLinks, which PSP joined, has no chance with him. “They consider the environment more important than the well-being of workers.” Wilders is a former VVD member, Dijk knows, and therefore “a capitalist”. Dijk thinks it is good that the PVV opposes “the foreigners” and wants more houses for “the Dutch”.

The SP has his “sympathy”, says Dijk, but he thinks that party is too marginal to make a difference. Others in Pekela are also positive about the SP, without voting for it. PVV voter Theresia de Looff (59), who works in a nursing home, liked how SP party leader Lilian Marijnissen talked about the small-scale care community center for the elderly in her hometown of Oss. “But I think she’s too soft. She wants to stay friends with everyone. Geert just tells it like it is.”

This is what SP members heard across the country in recent weeks: a lot of sympathy, few voters. After yet another defeat, dissatisfaction in this party is increasing. The SP narrowly retained five of its nine seats. Until 2021, the party still had 14. In discussions with NRC SP members from different corners of the world express their frustration. “If nothing changes now, we could turn off the lights in four years,” says a local department chairman.

The Saturday after the elections, all SP department chairmen met behind closed doors at a party council in Amersfoort, where the party office is located. A “vast majority” supported Marijnissen’s leadership there, a spokesperson said afterwards. She even received a standing ovation, attendees told the daily Fidelity.

This reporting led to annoyance among a local faction leader: “It makes us come across as an unworldly organization. As if no criticism had been expressed at all.” There is, say several attendees, also about the party leadership and Marijnissen. That applause for Marijnissen, they say, came after party chairman Jannie Visscher asked for it.

Leadership question

The group of critical SP members was not in the majority at the party council, but their frustration is great. This was Lilian Marijnissen’s seventh election, and she has never won any seats. “The culture of our party is that we do not stab each other in the back,” says the local faction leader. “But if you become smaller and smaller, and you have the feeling that there is no room for self-criticism at the party leadership, then you worry.”

Hardly anyone says that Marijnissen did poorly in the campaign. One department chair who wants to put the leadership question on the table even calls her “great”, “but people don’t vote for her”.

Another local chairman is more fierce: “Lilian has not been able to convey our message well enough, she is not inspiring enough.” If she does not leave, he says, she will place herself “above the party.” Marijnissen said last week that she would like to stay on unless the party asks her to leave.

That doesn’t seem to be happening for a while. The party leadership wants to resume the discussion after the party’s scientific bureau has made an “analysis” of the campaign and the election results.

De Helling shopping center in Oude Pekela.
Photo Kees van de Veen

In Oude Pekela, prominent SP member Hennie Hemmes (68) says that Lilian Marijnissen was “not bad” in the debates. But something has to change, he says at his kitchen table: “If we continue like this, there will be nothing left.” Hemmes was an alderman in Pekela for sixteen years and is now retired.

The party leadership will not appreciate him saying this, he thinks. After the poor results in the Provincial Council elections, Trouw called him. “Then I also said that something will have to be done.” Hemmes immediately received an email from Marijnissen, he says. “Whether I came for coffee in Amersfoort. I said: in Pekela the coffee is always ready. Then I didn’t hear anything anymore.”

But Hemmes has not yet decided what exactly needs to change. Perhaps a new party leader, “a different face”, will help, but he is not sure. “I don’t immediately see anyone in the picture for that.”

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Geert Wilders (PVV) and Caroline van der Plas (BBB) ​​with SP party leader Lilian Marijnissen, on Sunday evening during the RTL election debate.  Her party wants to become “the watchdog in the government”.

Silent about asylum

It may be awkward, Hemmes thinks, that the SP is “a bit quiet” about asylum. Refugees should be received generously, the SP believes, but many of its voters are more negative about this. The party therefore prefers to emphasize its firm positions on limiting labor migration.

In Oude Pekela the PVV voters are those NRC speaks clearly: Geert Wilders’ anti-immigration views were important in their choice of vote. A woman says in her doorway that she can barely make ends meet. “I don’t have a heater on, I can’t afford one, but those foreigners do have the heater on. They just get everything.” She has no interest in the story of left-wing parties, which are not against ‘foreigners’ but against large assets and high incomes. “They come in here and get everything. And we have to scrape. It’s that simple.”

According to PVV voter Iris (21), it is unacceptable that “refugees are brought to the Netherlands” as long as people still live in poverty here. But she is against more redistribution from rich to poor, as left-wing parties advocate. “They worked hard for that. Then it is nonsense if they have to pay more taxes.”

Street scene from Oude Pekela.
Photo Kees van de Veen

The supremacy of the PVV in East Groningen makes former councilor Hemmes despondent. “People are becoming more selfish.” During the time of the straw carton strikes, workers went to houses asking for dimes and quarters. Strikers received neither a salary nor benefits from the major unions, because they did not support the actions. “Everyone gave money so that there was bread on the table.” That solidarity, says Hemmes, has continued to diminish. “Now people think: as long as I get it right, it’s fine.”

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