The Guardian

Wanted: a leader the Dutch can trust after a pile-up of scandals

A benefits fraud affair and racism claims are among crucial issues in this week’s election, writes Senay Boztas in Amsterdam

Sandra Palmen was the whistleblower in a scandal that saw 31,000 Dutch families falsely accused of fraud – often dual nationals, single mothers or working families in less affluent postcodes who were financially and personally ruined by unjustly being made to repay every cent from years of childcare benefits.

But Palmen, a top inhouse lawyer who in 2017 wrote an official memo saying an anti-fraud drive had gone desperately wrong, was the only taxoffice employee who was pushed out.

Now she is standing for a new political party headed by a campaigning backbencher, Pieter Omtzigt, advocating a social contract to repair a series of government scandals in the Netherlands.

“There was a kind of market thinking in government, as though it was a biscuit factory bringing out new flavours,” Palmen said. “Now people want a different kind of government, protection of their rights, and to be heard and seen.”

With levels of trust in government persistently low in this small democracy of 17.9 million people, there has been an explosion of new political parties vying for the centre ground under the Netherlands’ proportional representation system as a general election approaches on Wednesday.

The New Social Contract (NSC) – set up by the former Christian Democrat MP Omtzigt in August – is one, leaning centre-right; on the left,

EU heavyweight Frans Timmermans is heading a new fusion of the Labour and GreenLeft parties.

Provincial elections in March, which decide the senate, were won by another new voice, the agrarian populist Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB). Even in the most successful established party, Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), there is a new leader of Turkish-Kurdish origin, Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius, who claims to be a fresh voice.

One reason a once stable system has fractured – the broadcaster RTL’s latest poll shows that 59% of voters have still not made up their minds – is an unprecedented period of government scandals, one after another.

First to emerge was the childcare benefits affair in 2020, the reason Palmen’s name became known.

About a decade ago, the government cracked down on fraud in the benefits system, despite civil servants’ advice that 90% to 96% of applications were not fraudulent. People were wrongly punished as fraudsters for small mistakes, and legal checks and balances did not function.

When Palmen was a specialist adviser to the benefits office, a director asked her to look at a file of several hundred families, represented by a lawyer.

“Benefits were being stopped in the middle of a year and people didn’t know why – their objections were not being listened to,” she said. “It was all or nothing. All of their basic rights were being violated. In the management team, there were people who had a feeling that it wasn’t OK but couldn’t put their finger on it. But I could, and so I wrote that memo.”

This 2017 memo, in which she said the policy was wrong and victims needed to be compensated, came to the attention of Omtzigt: it helped lead to a parliamentary inquiry that ruled families had suffered an “unprecedented injustice”, a multimillion-euro compensation scheme, the fall of a previous government, and the establishment of the NSC, which is now battling to be first in the polls.

Palmen is not the only one spurred into action by the series of Dutch scandals, which include ignoring decades of local earthquake damage in the town of Groningen; “institutional racism” being admitted by the finance minister in the tax office; ethnic profiling by the border police; and a political scandal about placing Omtzigt in a “position elsewhere”, where he might make less trouble.

A generation of politicians is resigning, and new governance is a central theme of Timmermans and the Farmer-Citizen Movement. “It is not a crisis of trust,” said Tom van der Meer, professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam. “It’s a crisis of trustworthiness.”

Mpanzu Bamenga, standing for the liberal-democratic D66 party, won a court case against the border police to stop ethnic profiling this February. He says that people have lost faith in a government that has broken its own constitution on subjects such as discrimination. “When you lose that [faith], you are also losing what

makes us a society, the solidarity,” he said. “Now it’s up to the government to understand they are there to service our society.”

Some believe that things could change under what could well be a minority coalition. Wendy Lisse, 46, who is from the Amsterdam-Zuidoost neighbourhood, found she had been subject to extra checks on benefits because of her postcode, and said the scandals would make victims vote for change. “I do have hope,” she said.

The political explosion has shattered some complacency in a country where systematic bias and favouritism may have been underestimated.

“The Dutch have woken up,” said Bert Bakker, a political communication expert at the University of Amsterdam. “We’ve always been a very well-organised and fair country, but there’s more attention that some of the things that we always thought were just and right might not always have happened in that way.”

Kristie Rongen, one of the parents who was incorrectly ordered to repay €92,000 (£80,000) to the benefits office – including €20,000 in interest – is standing for the Socialist party. The 48-year-old from Lelystad hopes the VVD, which led four administrations, will be punished by voters. “It was callous, and my heart goes out to the children,” she said.

But Willem Gispen, 71, who lives in Groningen and whose son’s house has been damaged by the numerous earthquakes in the area, is less hopeful. He says the VVD is ahead in some polls under its new leader, who is running a charm offensive about learning ing from previous previo mistakes.

“An earthquake earthqu is a bad experience but the worst was what happened afterwards: the unsureness, lack of clarity, not being taken seriously for years,” he said. “The aftershock shock is even worse.”

Like the difficult coalition talks ahead, any major cultural change in the Netherlands won’t come overnight. “The Dutch are people who want to participate, to sit at the table, but at some point many of them have walked away,” said Palmen.

“I hope people can trust us and we can make it happen.”