A considerable academic literature in migration studies and political science seeks to identify the factors that determine whether persons with a migration background vote in national or local elections in the destination country, or stand as a candidate (see, for example, Martiniello, 2006; Morales and Pilati 2014; Finn, 2020; Soininen & Qvist, 2021). In that literature, immigrants’ interest in and turnout rates at destination country elections are typically treated as indicators of immigrant integration (see, for example, Wright & Bloemraad, 2012). High turnout levels, for example, are seen as evidence that ethnic minorities have acquired a considerable level of knowledge of, and access to, the domestic political system. Furthermore, the overrepresentation of highly educated persons with a migration background among voters and those standing as a candidate is generally seen as evidence for mature immigrant incorporation, which has been facilitated by integration policies, such as through the granting of local-level voting rights to non-citizens, or the offering of naturalization and dual citizenship opportunities. Indeed, it has always been argued in the Netherlands—the country on which the present study focuses—that immigrants’ interest in the domestic political system would increase once they had obtained voting rights (Van Heelsum et al., 2016). The interest to promote immigrants’ political participation in liberal democracies also stems from the institutional need to preserve the legitimacy of domestic political institutions, which requires democratic involvement of different social groups (Kymlicka, 1995).
The political participation among immigrant groups does not unequivocally indicate social inclusion, however, as it may also be a response to perceived social exclusion. Otjes and Krouwel’s (2019), for example, report that perceived discrimination in the Netherlands had the strongest effect on migrants’ voting behaviour among all items investigated. Similarly, Oskooii (2020) shows that increased ethnic discrimination is positively connected to voting behaviour in national elections in the UK in spite of such discrimination potentially reducing voting opportunities for groups with a migration background. Geese (2018) argues that German candidates of immigrant origin tend to receive a significant share of the ‘immigrant vote’ because voters of immigrant origin generally believe that such candidates have personal knowledge of migration-related disadvantage, and are better equipped to fight ethnic discrimination.
A relatively recent political phenomenon, which can be observed in the Netherlands in particular, requires us to pay more attention to how a complex mix of social inclusion and social exclusion may drive specific forms of political participation among immigrant groups: in 2017, votes from about half of the Dutch citizens of Turkish origin—especially from younger residents—helped the newly formed DENK party to gain three seats in Dutch Parliament, which contributed to a historic loss of the traditional party of preference of the Turkish Dutch, the Partij van de Arbeid labour party (PvdA): 20% of the PvdA voters in 2012, voted for DENK in 2017 (Holsteyn, 2018). DENK’s success contributed to an already fragmented Dutch parliament: the newly elected 150 parliamentarians represented no less than 13 different parties. Similar shifts in voting occurred at the local level. While more than 85% of voters of Turkish origin in Amsterdam voted for the PvdA in 2006, only 40% did in 2014 (Vermeulen, 2019). In the 2021 national elections, DENK consolidated its three parliamentary seats.
While DENK does not exclusively cater to residents of Turkish heritage—38% of the Moroccan Dutch also voted for the DENK in 2017 (Vermeulen et al., 2020)—it is strongly rooted in the Turkish immigrant group: a second-generation and a 1.5 generation Turkish immigrant, both members of Parliament for the PvdA between 2012 and 2014, founded the party because they disagreed with the labour party’s views on immigrant integration (a 1.5 generation immigrant immigrated before or during his/her early teens (Rumbaut, 2004). The founders then decided to also involve candidates from other larger minorities, especially the Moroccan-Dutch. Most citizens of Turkish or Moroccan origin are descendants or other family members of the labour migrants that were recruited from Mediterranean countries in the 1960s and early 1970s (Kulu-Glasgow & Leerkes, 2013). While both groups mostly consist of Muslims, and also share a similar migration history, the Moroccan-Dutch are generally seen as a more fragmented, unorganized immigrant group than the Turkish-Dutch (cf. Fennema & Tillie, 1999). In other European countries, such as in Germany,Footnote 1 separate political parties have similarly been founded among immigrant groups with Turkish roots, but these parties have, as of yet, not been as successful as DENK in the Netherlands.
The lower electoral threshold in the Netherlands (0.7%) than in Germany (5%) is likely to partly explain DENK’s success. However, it can also be hypothesized that stronger anti-Muslim discourses, as well as related changes in political debates and integration policies in the Netherlands, have alienated groups of Turkish origin from mainstream Dutch parties (also see Vermeulen, 2020). In the Netherlands, a commitment to multiculturalist policies in the 1980s and 1990s was followed by a more assimilationist, or even exclusionist, turn in the 2000s and 2010s. Under Dutch multiculturalism, the Dutch state sought to promote immigrant integration via relatively liberal naturalisation policies and through migrant organizations, which were incorporated in national and local consultation structures. These policies indeed contributed to a steady increase in political participation. In Rotterdam, for example, the turnout among Turkish immigrants in local elections was only 28% in 1994, increasing to 56% in 2006 (Van Heelsum et al., 2016). At the same time, the policies also fostered latent opportunities for group-based organisation outside of mainstream political parties, while the later assimilationist turn possibly contributed to a desire to make use of these opportunities.
In what follows, we shed more theoretical and empirical light on processes of group-based political participation outside of established political parties—or what we will call ‘transformative reactive mobilisation’, drawing upon Portes and Rumbaut’s (2001) theory of reactive ethnicity, and recent additions on reactive religiosity. We theoretically proliferate these theories by applying them to voting behaviour, an empirical phenomenon that they have not, to our knowledge, been applied to yet.Footnote 2 Additionally, we theoretically elaborate these theories by pointing out that reactive mobilisation processes do not merely conserve or re-invent past ethnic identities. They are also future oriented and transformative: the mobilisation of identities around a shared ancestry is also aimed at improving the immigrant group’s societal position, and has the potential to both reinforce and alter ethnic identities, such as by inserting the ethnic group, as a group, more strongly in the polity of the destination country, and by possibly fostering a, to some extent, a transethnic ‘Muslim immigrant’ identity. Against this backdrop, we aim to answer the following research question: How can theories of reactive ethnicity help us understand DENK’s popularity among Dutch citizens with a Turkish background in particular, including those who are born and raised in the Netherlands? The analysis aims to identify the main theoretical mechanisms through which, and the conditions under which, reactive mobilisation processes seem to occur.
For three main reasons, the Turkish-Dutch constitute a strategic group for a study on transformative reactive mobilization. First, the immigrant group experiences a considerable amount of ethnic and/or religious discrimination (Maliepaard et al., 2015) and has been disengaging from traditional parties more than other immigrant groups (Bahçeli, 2018; Vermeulen et al., 2020). Second, the assimilationist turn has been more pronounced in the Netherlands than elsewhere (Bloemraad & Wright, 2014). Third, after Germany and France, the Netherlands hosts Europe’s largest Turkish origin community that, with over 400,000 people, constitutes the largest ethnic minority in the Netherlands.Footnote 3 Rotterdam, where most of the fieldwork was carried out, is an especially strategic site as the assimilationist turn was more marked there than in other Dutch cities, such as Amsterdam (Scholten, 2013), while the municipality also has the largest number of residents of first- or second-generation Turkish origin in the Netherlands (about 50,000), as well as a relatively well-developed ethnic-religious diaspora infrastructure (Phalet and Ter Val, 2004). Indeed, one of the DENK founders is a former Rotterdam city council member. Transformative reactive mobilization processes, or elements thereof, may also occur in other European countries, Dutch cities, and immigrant groups, but our case selection allows us to see the phenomenon especially clearly. In the discussion, we will reflect on the findings’ generalizability for other contexts and groups.
We do not claim to offer a full explanation of political representation of the immigrant group outside of mainstream political parties. It has been hypothesized, for example, that transnational Turkish diaspora networks, which are partially under the influence of the Turkish state, have also contributed to DENK’s success (Otjes & Krouwel, 2019). Indeed, the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs allowed DENK to promote itself in Dutch mosques receiving Turkish state funding. The appearance of the DENK leaders during a Rotterdam rally against the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey may also indicate links with the Turkish state (Bahçeli, 2018). Indeed, by facilitating dual citizenship and diaspora organizations, the Dutch multicultural policies also assisted the mutual engagement between migrants and the polity of the sending countries (Kymlicka, 1995; Ostergaard, 2003). Political parties in Turkey still closely engage with Turkish-origin diaspora with a view to making external Turkish citizens cast their votes in Turkish elections (Mügge et al., 2019). While we do not deny that Turkish diaspora policies may partially explain DENK’s success, we highlight the more domestic aspects of the reactive mobilisation process which are rooted in destination country experiences. It should also be mentioned that DENK, as far as is known, does not receive funding from the Turkish state—in fact, the party supported a 2022 bill that forbids financial gifts from outside of the European Union.
Political mobilization, integration policies and reactive identities
Migrants’ mobilization revolves around obtaining more political, social and economic rights in receiving states, and is determined by both transnational and domestic forces (cf. Koopmans & Statham, 2001; Ostergaard, 2003; Wright & Bloemraad, 2012). Sending countries may assist their citizens in improving their status abroad, and migrants’ incorporation trajectories and receiving countries’ integration policies both codetermine immigrants’ desire to participate politically, and their capabilities. National differences in naturalization requirements, for example, imply differences in voting rights: while countries such as Germany set up high barriers to naturalization, other countries, including the Netherlands, followed a more open-inclusive citizenship regime and granted migrants more opportunities for political claims making via internal and external voting rights, and through group-based consultation structures (Koopmans & Statham, 2001). The higher rate of domestic political participation among second-generation migrants compared to their parents confirms the importance of incorporation for domestic political participation (Mügge et al., 2019; Quintelier, 2009). The second generation tends to be better educated, speaks the destination country language better, and is generally more politically socialized (Ten Otjes & Krouwel, 2019; Teije et al., 2013). Most scholars therefore see immigrants’ knowledge of, and interest in, receiving countries’ political systems as both a consequence and cause of successful integration. It indicates, and reinforces, a sense of membership, belonging and trust in the polity (Huddleston, 2009; Mügge et al., 2019; Wright & Bloemraad, 2012).
Such a view nonetheless risks overlooking important complexities, since immigrants may also desire to participate politically when they experience social exclusion. Interpreting the recent mobilization of the Turkish-Dutch through a ‘reactive ethnicity’ lens (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001) may rightfully add more complexity. In their study on second-generation ethnic identities, Portes and Rumbaut (2001) found that ethnic identities were often paradoxically strengthened in the second generation, when strong expectations to equal social status were frustrated because of perceived discrimination and persistent social disadvantage. When faced with several hardships in achieving upward social mobility and equal social status in the country of destination—ambitions that are common among immigrants orienting themselves to permanent settlement-, persons with a migration background may come to reject the norms and values of the receiving community and acquire a stronger connection with their culture of origin. The second-generation may then develop a desire to assemble around race and ethnicity, display solidarity through daily interactions and activities, and strategically mobilize relations with the majority society in order to protect group interests (Maliepaard et al., 2015).
The notion of reactive ethnicity is in line with earlier insights from American sociology that assimilation—the empirically well-documented phenomenon that immigrant and non-immigrant groups tend to become more similar over time, usually mostly as a result of changes on the part of the immigrant group—may, in some cases, follow a ‘bumpy-line’, rather than a ‘straight line’ (Gans, 1992). In the European context, too, there is some evidence for a ‘paradox of integration’, where those with higher educational levels—e.g., who score higher on indicators of ‘structural integration’—perceive less respect for minorities, and more discrimination (De Vroome et al., 2014).
Recent research has theoretically proliferated the concept of reactive ethnicity by arguing that perceived discrimination may similarly trigger processes of ‘reactive religiosity’, where not just the ethnic identity as such is reinforced, but also its associated religion (Herda, 2018; Maliepaard et al., 2015; Torrekens & Jacobs, ). For example, Maliepaard et al. (2015) report that Dutch Muslims, who perceived the most discrimination, were more likely to frequent mosques, which the authors interpret as a response to a perceived negative climate in the Netherlands.
Various studies support the reactive ethnicity hypothesis: perceived discrimination, economic and social marginalization, lack of esteem, denial of social acceptance or group identities increase ethnic identification and consciousness (Platt, 2014; Simonsen, 2021; Stone & Meekyung, 2005). Verkuyten and Yildiz (2007) show that prejudice towards Islam or non-Western minorities among native Dutch culminated in a stronger Turkish and weaker Dutch identity. Çelik (2015), too, documents how Turkish-origin youth were more likely to reject the idea of having German citizenship when perceiving discrimination. The empirical base for religious religiosity hypothesis is more limited: the correlation between religiosity and perceived discrimination could also indicate that strongly religious Muslim Turks simply experience more discrimination than Turks who are less religious. In our view, perceived discrimination does not necessarily increase religiosity, but may indeed give it a more politicized, ‘reactive’ meaning. In case of perceived discrimination, it may begin to symbolize the threatened yet valued minority identity.
By extension, we cannot simply posit an unequivocal positive relationship between inclusive integration policies and immigrant’ political mobilization. As we will show, the Dutch turn to more assimilationist and exclusive policies contributed to a desire among the Turkish-Dutch to engage in the policy process outside of established parties, while the capacities of the Turkish-Dutch were indeed fostered by more inclusive policies, now and in the past. A move away from multiculturalism, which occurred in the second half of the 1990 and the 2000s, triggered oppositional desires, but the legacy of multiculturalism partially explains why political entrepreneurs like the DENK founders could mobilize the immigrant group outside of existing political parties. The next section therefore discusses Turkish immigration to the Netherlands in the context of changing integration discourses and policies, and gives more information about the characteristics of the DENK party.
Turkish immigration, Dutch integration policies, and DENK characteristics
Partially recruited through temporary labour employment agreements, Turks began emigrating to the Netherlands in the early 1960s. After the economic crisis in the 1970s, when recruitment ended, most ‘guest workers’ settled permanently, while immigration continued, mostly through family reunification and formation channels (Kulu-Glasgow & Leerkes, 2013). When unemployment soured in the 1980s, tensions between local Dutch populations and newcomers increased, and racism and discrimination became hot topics. At that time, a 'Minority Policy', the country’s first comprehensive integration policy, was introduced, which argued for ‘integration with preservation of culture’. Ethnic minorities received various cultural rights, and it was attempted to incorporate minority elites into the policy process via migrant organizations. The government also opened up civil service positions, introduced local voting rights, and aimed to reduce barriers to naturalization, so as to provide a space to migrants within existing political structures.
The Dutch tradition of 'pillarization' partially inspired the multicultural policies. In the early twentieth century, each religious group was granted some autonomy, and was promoted to develop separate ‘pillars’, e.g. institutions in areas such as schooling and medical care (cf. Uitermark et al., 2005). By 1997, when the Dutch liberal policies with regard to dual citizenship had become stricter, almost half of all Dutch residents with a first- or second-generation Turkish migration background had acquired Dutch citizenship, usually next to Turkish citizenship. Twenty years later, during the 2017 elections, 82% of the immigrant group was Dutch (while dual nationality is no longer promoted, there are various exceptions that still make it possible).
The multicultural approach offered immigrants a beneficial environment for claims-making and institutional trust, and the Turkish immigrant group even stands out: it organized itself more than other immigrant groups, had relatively high turnout rates in Dutch elections (Fennema & Tillie, 1999), and developed stronger identifications with the host country than, for instance, the Turks in Germany (Ersanilli & Koopmans, 2010).
In the second half of the 1990s, the political discourse on migration and integration in countries such as Germany, France, England and the Netherlands became more restrictive and assimilationist, with even some exclusionist undertones, especially in public debates. The changing discourse mostly occurred because of dissatisfaction with slow improvements in immigrants’ social positioning and persistent segregation, which were blamed on immigrants (Scholten, 2011), and, in some readings, a concern about Islam in relation to national identity and security, a discourse that became stronger following the 9–11 attacks and the ISIS insurgency in Iraq and Syria.
In the 2000s and 2010s, the multicultural approach made way for a more duty-based, individual-level approach to integration: the national government abolished group-based consultation structures, and made residence rights conditional on civic integration exams. Permanent residence status and naturalization became conditional on passing a civic integration exam in the Netherlands; admission to the Netherlands via the family formation channel became conditional on passing a civic integration exam abroad. The Netherlands also introduced various other restrictive measures for family reunification within limits sets by international law, with the explicit aim to limit continued immigration from the former guest-worker countries Turkey and Morocco (Kulu-Glasgow & Leerkes, 2013). While it is still widely believed that newcomers should be able to obtain similar rights as natural citizens, it is now argued that residence rights should be conditioned on proven progress in civic integration, and that group-based structures hampered rather than facilitated integration.
Although multiculturalism was discarded in public discourse, it would be incorrect to say that multicultural policies were fully abandoned, or that multicultural legacies did not create path dependencies persisting until today. For example, immigrant organizations, including religious organizations, remained influential among the Turkish-Dutch—if only because of the constitutional right of association and freedom of religion. Additionally, local authorities in various cities pragmatically preserved certain multiculturalist policies such as by funding ethnic projects under the banner of ‘diversity policy’ (Uitermark et al., 2005). The restrictive turn in admission policies, too, was stronger rhetorically than practically: for example, the Turks were actually exempted from the civic integration exam abroad in 2011 when the Dutch Administrative High Court ruled that the requirement violated the Association Agreement between the EU and Turkey (cf. Kulu-Glasgow & Leerkes, 2013). In spite of these nuances, the tone was set, and a considerable part of the Turkish Dutch increasingly detached itself from the mainstream due to changes in discourse and policies surrounding immigration and Islam (cf. Bahçeli, 2018).
As a result, a considerable part of the Turkish-Dutch reinvented its Turkish national and religious identities. The interethnic (and international) tensions peeked in 2017 when the Turkish-Dutch—once considered the exemplary case of ‘integration with preservation of culture’—organized a massive local protest when the Dutch authorities denied a Turkish minister entry to a political rally in the framework of the Turkish national elections. Twelve demonstrators were arrested, and huge polemics followed, in which Dutch politicians seized the protest as proof of yet another integration failure, while the Turkish-Dutch defended the protests as a reaction to a discriminative environment (Bahçeli, 2018).
DENK is generally not seen as a one-issue party, although it does present itself strongly on theme of discrimination. It’s 2015 election manifesto mentions 5 five main positions: The Netherlands should be (1) ‘tolerant’, (2) ‘social’ (caring), (3) ‘learning’ (innovative), using ‘everyone's talent’, (4) ‘sustainable’ and (5) ‘just’, aimed at promoting ‘international justice’. For example, DENK strives for a national programme to fight Islamophobia and hatred against Muslims, and wants the government to hire specialized police offers against ethnic discrimination. Its financial resources mainly come from regular Dutch governmental subsidies for political parties, membership fees (at the time of writing it has about 3700 members), and some private gifts. Dutch political parties are legally required to report all gifts of at least €4500, and it should be noted that DENK has not reported having received any gifts from outside of the Netherlands. There are no institutionalised links between DENK and the Turkish-Dutch ‘ethnic infrastructure’, but various centrally positioned members, such as the present board members, are owners of successful Turkish-Dutch companies or board members of local Turkish-Dutch mosques.
Research has shown that younger citizens (in 2021, the median age of the DENK voters was 38), citizens of ‘non-Western’ immigrant origin—especially from Turkey and Morocco -, and, less so, female citizens are overrepresented among the DENK voters, while no significant correlations seem to exist with educational level.Footnote 4 Interestingly, DENK is not particularly popular among other larger minorities experiencing ethnic discrimination, such as the ‘Surinamese’, ‘Antilleans’ and ‘Sub-Sahara Africans’, even if there have also been tendencies toward political representation outside of mainstream political parties for these groups.Footnote 5 All in all, these patterns confirm that DENK is relatively popular among second-generation immigrants of Turkish origin in particular, followed by those of Moroccan origin, including the upwardly mobile in these groups (which also include a relatively high number of women).