The Glow festival of lights was in full swing in Eindhoven on Thursday evening, when around 100 of the city’s international residents came to city hall for an in-depth discussion about national politics.
Outside, the streets and cafes were packed with people. Inside, in the main council chamber, five parties lined up to outline their position on a whole host of issues, from the 30% ruling to housing and cyber security.
Reducing immigration may be one of the big issues in the national campaign, but the tone of the Eindhoven debate was set by Marion Hinderdoel from the Brainport organisation – the monicker given to the region’s innovation efforts. “We welcome everyone who wants to live and work here,” she said. “We need more people that we can educate in the Netherlands.”
The comment was opportune, seeing three of the four parties on stage at that moment were pro-immigration. The increasingly anti-immigrant VVD was still a long way from the dragon’s den, stuck in traffic on a motorway heading south.
The GroenLinks/PvdA candidate Eva de Bruijn, who was leafleting in the high street ahead of the debate, was quick to elaborate on her international credentials. “I studied at Eindhoven University with international students from all over the world,” she said. “It expanded my horizons.”
But when the discussion turned to restricting the use of English at university, the CDA’s Jan Joosten, a local textiles entrepreneur and 44th on the party list, admitted his party’s position would not be popular. “We believe bachelor’s degrees should be in Dutch,” he said, despite his palpable pride at the region being “the most innovative in the world”.
“Volt has never been opposed to immigration,” said Valerie Pajak, 16th on the list of party hopefuls. “It is the lack of housing that is the problem. Immigrants are not the cause.”
The VVD’s candidate Judith Tielen, a sitting MP who is certain to be re-elected, turned up half way through the debate on immigration. “I’ve been in my car for three hours trying to get here,” she told the audience.
Under fire over the VVD’s plans to limit immigrant and refugee numbers, and the lack of progress in house building over the past few years, Tielen later pointed out that the VVD is the only party not to have backed plans to restrict the 30% ruling.
Although most issues came on board at some point, agriculture did not get a look in, despite the Eindhoven region’s keenness to tackle food innovation as well.
“Everyone is talking about IT but no one has mentioned farming during the debate,” said Tunde Keshinro, who has lived in the region for four years and works as a vet’s assistant on a pig farm. “Yet everyone is going to have breakfast tomorrow.”
So was the audience any the wiser after the debate? Some said they were even more confused, others wondered how to make sense of so much information.
“How the hell do you get a grip on what the actual politics are?” asked British local Peter Talbot, who has lived in the Netherlands for 11 years, at the post-debate drinks. “You’ve got a bit of the right, a bit of the left. It is so difficult to make a choice.”
Some of the audience were disappointed at the lack of substance. “Everyone knows there will be a coalition,” said Anait Mesropjan, an Estonian marketeer who has lived in the Netherlands for five years. “So, it seems delusional to try to plan everything out now.”
As the candidates mingled with potential voters in the downstairs lobby, the questions flowed thick and fast. “In all the campaigning I’ve done over the past six weeks, I’ve not had to be up to speed on so many different subjects,” said D66 hopeful Mpanzu Bemenga, who is in ninth place on the list and could just scrape in, judging by current polls. “This is very intense.”
Before heading out into the Glow-lit night to meet his deadline, Eindhovens Dagblad reporter Lucas van Houtert expressed his surprise about “how deadly serious” everyone was, “even though they can’t vote”.
“If you come from a country where people take their politics seriously, then that is what you do,” retorted Beena Arunraj, who organised the debate.
You can listen to a recording of debate on Radio4Brainport here
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