World Bulletin / News Desk
The Dutch have long had a reputation for being tolerant, open and laid-back. But the leader of the country's newest political party Sylvana Simons believes if you scratch the surface, you'll expose deep-seated racism.
After being bombarded with death threats and hate mail for calling out a TV show guest for a racist remark, the well-known former TV presenter decided the country needed a new kind of political tone and message -- one of inclusiveness and equality.
In a little over three months since its launch in December she has garnered enough support to field 20 candidates in Wednesday's elections with her new party -- Artikel 1.
It's named after the first article of the Dutch constitution which states "that all persons in The Netherlands shall be treated equally" and that there shall be no discrimination based on race, religion, and sexual orientation.
"We feel the first article of our constitution is under pressure. It's in danger and it needs to be defended and rightfully executed," Simons told AFP.
Leaving behind a two-decade successful TV and radio career was a tough decision, she acknowledged, particularly to enter the harsh, unforgiving battleground of politics.
"I just couldn't deny any longer that we have structural and institutional problems with inequality regarding male-female issues, black and white issues, immigration issues. I just couldn't let it go any more," she said.
But she was still surprised by the intensity of the backlash once she started questioning some of the country's most cherished traditions -- such as a Christmas blackface character.
For the Dutch, Black Pete is just a jolly person who accompanies Saint Nicolas to hand out sweets to the children.
But foreigners are often surprised to see dozens of Black Petes, men and women, walking the streets in early December, faces blacked up, bright red lips, black curly wigs and garish, gaudy clothing. And the image is everywhere, from special chocolates to cakes, and food labels.
Artikel 1 wants to abolish Black Pete and establish July 1 as a day to mark the abolition of Dutch involvement with the slave trade. It also wants people not to have to state their gender when they register with the authorities.
Image of lynching
But Simons came under virulent attack on social media -- images of her face superimposed on that of a slave being lynched, or as the butt of a racist song. Prosecutors are now investigating whether to bring charges.
The Netherlands has long been a multicultural society, welcoming people not just from former and current Dutch territories such as Indonesia, Suriname, Curacao and Aruba, but also refugees from Eritrea, Somalia as well as the Middle East.
Some 3.6 million people out of a population of 17 million are counted officially as having at least one parent born outside The Netherlands. Among them just over two million are classified as non-Westerners -- primarily coming from Turkey, Morocco and Suriname.
Amid Europe's worst refugee crisis since World War II, far-right anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party (PVV) have seen his popularity rise. He could now land as the second-largest party in parliament.
"I think we've come to realise that tolerance is not the same as acceptance. Tolerance just means that you don't really care, but OK, you tolerate. And I think that we've now reached a stage where it needs to be about acceptance, it needs to be about equality," said Simons.
Polls suggest her fledgling party could win at least one seat in the new parliament.
The youngest of the party's 20 candidates is just 18, the oldest is 82. The top three candidates on their party list are women, including Simons, and they also have a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian and an atheist among their ranks.
Sixty percent of the candidates are also from the LGBT community.
"We think emancipation starts with representation, so it was very important to us that our list reflected society," Simons said, adding "what brings us together is a different way of looking at people, looking at society."
"For us one seat is a big, big win. The mere fact that we exist and we are uniting people, and mobilising people and activating people is already a big win."
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