Van Heelsum, A.: Political Participation and Associations of Immigrants in the Netherlands, 2008

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In this policy brief, I will present a short overview of what is known about political participation of migrants and associations of immigrants in the Netherlands. In the first part I will summarize the main results of research on political participation in the Netherlands. In section 2 I will then focus on research about migrant associations. In the last section I will sum up this overview by presenting an explanation on the relationship between political participation and associations of immigrants.1

As is usual in the Netherlands, the counting of immigrants is based on the ‘ethnic group’ criterion (immigrant background). That means that all individuals that are themselves born abroad or have at least one parent that is born abroad are listed as members of ethnic groups. So in all figures both immigrants with foreign passports, nationalised first generation immigrants, but also second generation immigrants with one or two foreign born parents are counted. Since some other European countries count only foreign nationals, comparison is not always directly possible.

1. Political Participation of Immigrants

Political participation can include both active and passive forms and can be directed at the electoral process and at all kinds of organised campaigning on specific subjects. This overview is limited to two aspects of political participation: one passive form, namely voting in local and national elections and one active form, namely running for councillor or Member of Parliament. Research on these issues has taken place from 1985 onwards; a complete overview was given by Michon, Van Heelsum & Tillie (2007). For more information on organised campaigning see Klandermans (2000).

Immigrants in the Netherlands have the right to vote in national elections if they have Dutch nationality. Immigrants without a Dutch passport have been granted the right to vote in local elections in 1985. They may vote if they have legally resided in the Netherlands for a period of at least five years. Immigrants, as mentioned including the second generation, constituted up to 50% of the population in the large Dutch cities and the need was felt to give them representation in local councils. Since the number of nationalised immigrants is growing constantly, the difference between the number of voters of immigrant origin in local and national elections is diminishing.

Voting in National Elections

In the 2002 parliamentary elections, about 725.000 Dutch citizen of foreign descent had the right to vote; they represented then about 6% of the total electorate (Michon & Tillie 2003b: 128). In the 2006 parliamentary elections, 1.2 million persons originating from the main immigrant countries, representing about 10% of the electorate, had the right to vote, of which 235,000 of Turkish origin, 235.000 of Surinamese descent, 195,000 of Moroccan origin, and 85,000 from the Dutch Antilles (Dekker 2006). 2
As Michon et al (2007) summarize, research focusing on the national level is diverse, and has been conducted using different methods. At the parliamentary elections of 2006, the marketing institute Foquz conducted a poll on Election Day among voters of foreign origin which showed that 69.7 percent of the voters of foreign descent casted their votes (Foquz, 22-11-2006). This was more than the turnout at local level, but less than the turnout of the whole electorate (80.4%) at the national level. Nearly all research on voting of immigrants has shown that immigrants make less use of their right to vote than the autochthonous Dutch population. Another important conclusion on turnout was that there are obvious differences between ethnic groups: voters of Turkish and Surinamese origin cast their vote more often than voters of Antillean origin.

Concerning party choice, not only the differences between the overall and immigrant party choice are obvious, but also the differences between ethnic groups. Left wing voting is more common among immigrants. The Labour Party (PvdA) reached a much higher percentage of votes among voters of foreign descent than among those of Dutch origin; particularly voters originating from Morocco casted their vote for this party. The Labour party (PvdA) got the majority Moroccan votes. The percentage of votes for Labour is much larger among voters of foreign origin than among the whole electorate. The left-wing party SP was also very successful among all ethnic groups, much more so than among the Dutch electorate. Voting for this party had more than doubled compared to previous elections. On the other hand, the Christian Democratic Party (CDA) and the right-wing liberal party (VVD) are relatively unpopular among migrant voters. This dislike is partly due to the restrictive policies of the VVD minister that was in charge of immigration and integration affairs in the 2003-2006 This does however not mean that all immigrants are of leftist ideology, as Tillie analyses in his voting preference analysis (Tillie 2000: 78; Michon & Tillie 2003a: 39). Some of the voters have considered strategic arguments to get rid of the centre right coalition.

Voting in Local Elections

Since the introduction of the franchise for immigrants who have resided at least five years in the Netherlands, research on the immigrants' voting behaviour has been conducted in all local elections. In this regard, an important result is firstly that the turnout of the main immigrant groups has always been lower than the one of Dutch voters, though there are exceptions for specific groups. This lack of participation which is generally seen as a consequence of low educational levels and a lack of interest has led to local campaigns which are to simulate voting among these groups. Because of the comparability in research methods, only results from the 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2006 elections.

The turnout in cities differs a lot through the years. While the turnout in Amsterdam and Arnhem seems to go down from 1994 to 2002 and up again in 2006, we can observe a constant increase in Rotterdam. A second conclusion that can be drawn states that voting behaviour differs among ethnic groups: generally the turnout of Turks is much higher than the turnout of other immigrant groups, particularly Surinamese, Antilleans and Cape Verdians. Moroccan voting has increased a lot in 2006, though less in Amsterdam than in Rotterdam and Arnhem.

Concerning party choice, results again show that immigrants tend to vote more to the left side of the ideological spectrum. The Amsterdam 2006 elections revealed that an overwhelming majority of ethnic minority groups voted for the Labour Party PvdA; they nearly did not vote for any other party (Turks 87%, Moroccans 77%, Surinamese 82%). This trend became clearer with the centre right national cabinets and ministers. During the nineties there was still quite a number of immigrants who voted for the CDA and VVD. In the 1998 elections voting was much more diverse: the Greens received quite some votes from Turks (18%), Moroccans (35%), Surinamese (20%) and Antilleans (22%). The Christian Democrats were also popular among Turks (18%). Compared to the voting behaviour of ethnic minority groups, voting preferences of Dutch voters did not change as much between 1998 and 2006 except that the Socialist Party (SP) improved from 9 to 18%. Although observations showed an increase of PvdA votes from 30 to 35% among Dutch Amsterdammers, this increase was relatively low compared to the increase in PvdA votes of Turkish, Moroccan and Surinamese Amsterdammers. In Rotterdam the same popularity of the PvdA was visible among Turks (83%), Moroccans (88%), Surinamese (87%) and Antilleans (75%); PvdA voting in Rotterdam was even stronger than in Amsterdam. As it was the case in Amsterdam,   votes for the Green Party (GRL) decreased particularly among Moroccan Rotterdammers (from 41 to 5%). Concerning the CDA a huge loss of votes could be observed among Turkish (53% to 0%) and Cape Verdian Rotterdammers (24% to 1%). In Rotterdam the conservative Leefbaar Party (former Pim Fortuyn party) received 31% of the Dutch votes in 2006 while in Amsterdam this party nearly does not exist (1% of votes).Unlike in Amsterdam, in Rotterdam the unhappiness with the anti immigrant and anti Muslim statements of the Leefbaar party has led to a clear polarisation:  Though immigrants are of all ideological backgrounds, anti immigrant statements by right and centre parties tend to push them to the left.

Members of Parliament and Councillors of Immigrant Origin

The number of members of parliament (MP) with an immigrant origin has increased from one on a total of 150 in 1986 to seventeen in the 2003-2006 cabinet (11%). Since then the total number has diminished again to twelve which is 8% of the MPs. 3 That means that the current representation in the parliament (8%) is slightly too low compared to the 10% of immigrants of non western origin in the Dutch population.
It was the labour party (PvdA) that first attracted a MP of Moluccan descent. 4 But in 1998 all major parties took care to have at least one immigrant representative, PvdA and VVD had both a Turkish, a Moroccan and a Surinamese representative. The overrepresentation at that time was caused by the fact that all of the large political parties wanted representatives from all three large immigrant groups on their lists.

On the local level, there are important differences between big cities and smaller municipalities. Research shows that the number of representatives has been growing fast since 1994 (from 73 to 302). In cities like Amsterdam and Rotterdam the percentage of representatives has grown to a level similar to the percentage of immigrants in their population, but in smaller municipalities this is not the case. Currently, immigrant councillors constitute three percent of the total number of councillors, which means that the population of foreign descent is severely underrepresented.

We can also conclude that Turks are the most politically active immigrant group:  over half of the councillors of immigrant origin are Turkish. But the immigrant councillors are not present in all parties. Most migrant councillors were elected in 2002 and in 2006 for the Labour party PvdA (in both cases more than 80 councillors), for the Christian Democratic Party CDA (around 40 councillors) and for the Green party (in both years 33 councillors) (IPP, 2006: 9; ISP 2002).

2. Associations of Immigrants

From 1984 to 2004, a short good overview on each ethnic group and its associations of immigrants in the Netherlands was given and updated on a yearly basis in the Handbooks on Minorities. In addition to this there were many studies available providing in depth information on a specific community or city, like for instance Doomernik (1991) on Turkish mosque organisations, Landman (1992) on Islamic organisations, Bloemberg (1995) on Indo Surinamese organisations, Steijlen (1996) and Smeets (2001) on Moluccan organisations, Sunier (1996) on the role of the second generation in Turkish Islamic organisations, Minghuan (1999) on Chinese organisations, Canatan (2001) on Turkish Muslim organisations and Canatan (2003) on migrant associations in Rotterdam. On a more theoretical and long term level we find studies by Penninx & Schrover (2001) on the historical process of formation and renewal as well as a study by Kraal & Van Heelsum (2002) which analyses changes in the field of Moroccan organisations. The most elaborate study that can be found is the one conducted by Vermeulen (2006) on organisational development among Turks and Surinamese in Amsterdam and Berlin.
A more complete overview was given in 2004 by Van Heelsum (2004a and b), in which the associations of immigrants in the sixteen largest ethnic communities in the Netherlands were treated. At that time, the total number of association had reached 4000, excluding the smallest ethnic communities and the multi-ethnic. 5

The largest number of organisations was found among Turks (1125), Surinamese (881) and Moroccans (720), the three largest ethnic groups. Not only the number of associations per ethnic group varies enormously, but also the organisational density differs, that is the number of associations per 1000 inhabitants. The highest organisational density was found in the Moluccan community (9,9) and the lowest among Afghanis (1,0). Models were developed to explain how characteristics of the receiving society interact with demands of migrant communities and why organisations develop in certain periods (Van Heelsum 2004, Vermeulen 2006). The variety in organisational density is explained by a large number of factors among which a) characteristics of the ethnic groups, like internal divisions and religious characteristics, b) characteristics of the opportunity structure in the receiving society and, c) interactions between these two. For instance, the Turkish community which has arrived  since 1965 consists of several Muslim sub-groupings, each of which has a need for the establishment of its own mosques, federation and socio-cultural associations. Within the Dutch opportunity structure, no mosques were already available, religious organisations are easily accepted, since they fit in the already religiously pillarized society. Consequently, they were established in large amounts, while for instance in Germany one of the Turkish religious movements - Milli Görüs - was limited by government interventions. Vermeulen (2005, 2006) describes in more detail why the organisational density of Turkish organisations in Berlin is lower than in Amsterdam and to what extent development in the Surinamese community is comparable to the one in the Turkish community. Of course a demand needs to exist for certain associations within a community, but financial possibilities and subsidies can also provide a powerful stimulant, as the rise in Surinamese organisations between 1980 and 1990 in Amsterdam shows.

Extensively studied were the networks between associations within migrant communities in the Netherlands (Alink et al 1998; Berger et. al. 1998a, 1998b; Van Heelsum 2001a, 2001b, 2002a;, Van Heelsum & Tillie 1999; Van Heelsum & Voorthuysen 2002; Vermeulen 2006). Generally board members, who function in two or more associations form and strengthen ties within a community and help to spread information and mobilise people fast. Comparing immigrant communities, the Turkish one has been striking for its strong interconnections, even between ideologically very different groups like left, right and religious ones (Van Heelsum & Tillie 1999). The Surinamese community has also many associations, but the connectedness is only strong within the Hindu Surinamese community and not so much among African Surinamese and between for instance African Surinamese and Hindus (Van Heelsum & Voorthuysen 2002). The Moroccan community shows a much looser structure, with many active elements (associations) that are not connected (Van Heelsum, 2001b).

3. The Relationship Between Political Participation and Associations of Immigrants

Finally, I would like to make a sort remark on the relationship between political participation and civic communities. Putnam’s work (Putnam 1993, 2000, Putnam et al 2004) has stimulated the debate on the assumed positive effect of civic communities on political participation and consequently on the quality of a democracy. Fennema & Tillie (2001) and Tillie (1998, 2004) used his reasoning to investigate immigrant communities in Amsterdam and concluded that a similar mechanism was effective, regarding the Dutch situation: an active and interwoven immigrant community seemed to have a positive effect on political participation, particularly voting, as we have seen among Turks in Amsterdam. The reason might be that the civic community of Turks is more developed than the civic community of other ethnic groups and community organisations have stimulated active political participation.
This line of argumentation has been investigated in other Dutch cities apart from Amsterdam as well as (Van Heelsum 2005)  on the national level in the Netherlands (Van Heelsum 2002b), but also in cities in other countries like Berlin in Germany (Berger 2004) and Brussels in Belgium (Jacobs, Phalet & Swyngedouw 2004 ). Results, however, show that in those places the process seems to work in a slightly more complicated manner than in Amsterdam. Though there are clear indications that the strength of civic communities has a positive influence on political participation, other factors, like the educational level of the immigrants, cultural characteristics and the local political also have an impact when it comes to political participation of immigrants.


1. Dr. A. van Heelsum is researcher at the Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies (IMES) of the University of Amsterdam since 1997, specialising on migrant associations, political participation and local integration policies.
2. Note that the percentage of immigrants is higher than this, since only persons above 18 years old have the right to vote and there are relatively a lot of children among immigrant groups.
3. 1986-1990:1, 1990-1994:1, 1994-1998: 7, 1998-2002: 11, 2002-2003: 12, 2003-2006: 17, 2006-now: 12.
4. Moluccans from the Indonesian Moluccan Island group arrived in the Netherlands in 1945 as former soldiers in the Dutch colonial army. Since their arrival in the Netherlands, they hoped for their return and fought for independence of the Moluccan Republic.
5. An organisation is considered Turkish, when at least half of the board members are of Turkish origin.


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Dr. Anja van Heelsum, Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies (IMES) of the University of Amsterdam, 2008