Prime Minister Mark Rutte labelled the Dutch elections of March 15 2017 as the quarterfinal in the battle against the “wrong kind of populism”, with the upcoming French and German elections being the semi-finals and finals, respectively. Despite predictions of a populist victory and speculation about a Nexit referendum among national and international media, when election day arrived Rutte’s Liberal Party (VVD) lost 20% of its seats but remained the largest party. Together the pro-European parties now hold a 60% majority in parliament. How did the pro-European forces beat the “wrong kind of populism”?
Three months before the elections, Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party (PVV) was the largest party in the most important poll and it was predicted that pro-European parties would only retain a small majority. Despite not ending up as the largest party, the Freedom Party picked up five additional seats in parliament (out of 150). Three events during the campaign appear to underlie Wilders’s ’defeat’ in the election: the absence of Wilders in the televised debates, the expulsion of a Turkish minister by the Rutte government, and the emergence of a radical right-wing populist competitor. At the same time, the elections saw the two most pro-European parties – Democrats 66 (D66) and the GreenLeft (GroenLinks) – double their seats in parliament at the cost of the Labour Party (PvdA). Did the pro-European parties beat the anti-European parties in this election? And if so, how?
Wilders has a strained relationship with the traditional media. He prefers to communicate through social media and he has given larger interviews to right-wing media such as De Telegraaf. In the lead-up to the elections four major televised debates were scheduled: two debates with the five to eight largest parties, a one-on-one between Rutte and Wilders, and a final debate on the night before the election where fourteen parties were given a podium. Wilders refused to appear in the first two. In this way, he allowed the Christian-Democratic leader Buma (from the Christian Democratic Appeal – CDA) and Liberal Prime-Minister Mark Rutte to speak to undecided voters. They both chose to veer clearly to the right on issues of immigration and national identity during this campaign: in a larger printed ad at the start of the campaign, Rutte wrote that he felt that people who harass gay people, shout at women wearing short skirts, or who call normal Dutch people racist should leave the country.
On the issue of European cooperation as well, the Liberal party has also become more conservative. Unlike many other pro-European parties, it would like the European Union to focus on trade and little else. The EU should focus on its core business and it should not take on an “unnecessary role”, “waste money”, or “interfere on issues that we can take care of ourselves”.
Wilders banked all his money on a one-on-one televised debate before the elections between him and Rutte, three days before the election. It was hyped as the “prime ministers’ debate”. By then, however, the distance between Rutte and Wilders was so large in the polls that it was clear Rutte would win. Moreover, so many parties had announced that they would not govern with Wilders that he had no realistic route to the Prime Minister’s office.
Rutte did not just show his conservative side in the election debates and printed ads, but also as Prime Minister. In the weekend before the election the Turkish Minister for Family Affairs, Fatma Kaya, wanted to speak to a rally of Dutch-Turkish people to advise them to vote in favour of the new Turkish constitution in the upcoming Turkish referendum. The Dutch government did not want her to speak to exhort Dutch-Turkish voters to vote in favour of a constitution that would make Turkey less democratic. In order to prevent her from speaking the government chose one of its harshest means. It declared her an unwanted alien and expelled her from the country. The action led to civil unrest among Dutch Turks and protests from the Turkish government. This move appears to have bolstered support for the Liberal Party in the last week before the elections. Rutte’s tough talk was backed up by tough action.
New kid on the block
Not only the Liberals and the Christian Democrats profited from the virtual absence of Wilders in the campaign, a number of smaller radical right-wing populist parties also ran in the elections. All of these had connections to the ‘no’ camp in the referendum that was held in the Netherlands in 2016, after concerned citizens petitioned the government to hold a referendum on the EU-Ukraine association agreement. The ‘no’-camp won and the Dutch government had to renegotiate the EU-Ukraine association agreement. Dutch ratification of the new negotiation result is still pending. One of the groups of concerned citizens changed to become a political party: the Forum for Democracy (FvD) led by young ‘intellectual’ Thierry Baudet. He was very willing to appear in talk shows, unlike Wilders, and advocates a Dutch exit from the EU, tougher controls on immigration, and more direct democracy.
This party was able to win two seats, which appear to have come directly from the PVV’s potential support base, given the two parties’ ideological overlap. The two seats would not have fundamentally changed the dynamics of these elections. For the future of the Freedom Party, however, having a second radical right-wing populist party in parliament with a leader that is more willing to talk to the traditional media may prove a game changer as it has never had any serious competition for its base.
Space for pro-European left-wing parties
All in all, Wilders’s campaign was invisible, allowing the new and old right-wing parties to court undecided voters with conservative views on issues such as immigration, national identity, and civic integration with right-wing rhetoric and actions. At the same time, the two most pro-European and cosmopolitan parties, the social-liberal Democrats 66 and the GreenLeft, were able to double their seats in parliament.
These parties appear to have profited from the huge loss of the Labour Party. Between 1946 and 2017 it had been (with one exception) one of the two largest parties in parliament. Social-democratic prime ministers had alternated with centre-right prime ministers. Social-democrats governed with either Liberals and Christian-democrats for some forty of the last seventy years. The Labour Party had been the rallying ground of the mainstream pro-European Left in the Netherlands. In 2012, the Labour Party had been able to pull off an unexpected victory going from 15 to 38 seats in a matter of weeks. Diederik Samsom, newly elected Labour leader, had been able to court the voters of the Left with a focus on honesty and fairness. It entered in a government with the Liberals, and implemented an ambitious agenda of reforms and cuts to healthcare and social security. The social-democratic number two, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, became the chair of the face of European austerity as president of the Eurogroup. Soon the PvdA dropped in the polls, polling only 9% in autumn 2013. This freed up a large number of pro-European left-wing voters. Then for the three-and-half years between 2013 and 2017, the Labour Party had been unable to change its electoral predicament; declining unemployment did not boost the party’s support. The party changed its leader, choosing the Minister of Social Affairs & Labour, Lodewijk Asscher, over Diederik Samsom. Asscher had long been seen as the Labour Party’s most promising politician. An ‘Asscher-effect’ didn’t materialise, despite the fact that many left-wing voters believed him to be the best potential Prime Minister. Asscher also sharpened the party’s course, moving it to a more critical course on the European Union and immigration, and calling for the Netherlands to limit the free movement of labour in the EU. None of this appears to have softened the Labour Party’s defeat.
As always happens when parties lose voters, the question arises of whether the defeat of the Labour Party is somehow definitive. A similar question arose when the Christian-democrats lost in the 1994 election. Yet by 2002, they again supplied the Prime Minister. In 2012, the Labour Party went from 15 seats in the polls to 38 seats in the elections in a matter of weeks. Dutch voters are less loyal to specific political parties and choose to reward parties for having good plans and waging good campaigns. If the Labour Party is able to do so again, they may yet be rewarded. The notion, however, that it will always be the first or second party, has to be given up.
Uncompromisingly pro-European and cosmopolitan
In contrast to the Labour Party, the Democrats 66, and the GreenLeft pursued an uncompromisingly pro-European course. They advocated allowing more Syrian refugees into the country and returning to traditional Dutch values of tolerance and religious liberty. In the absence of Wilders in the televised debates they chose to distinguish themselves from the conservatism of the Liberals and the Christian Democrats. The Democrats 66 also chose to contrast themselves with Donald Trump to emphasise their cosmopolitanism and cultural liberalism.
The two parties, however, clearly differ in social-economic agendas. The Democrats 66, who had supported the agenda of the Liberal-Labour government of welfare state reform and budget cuts, was rewarded for its strategy of cooperation and continued on a right-wing economic course, advocating further liberalisation of the labour market. The GreenLeft advocated a more egalitarian distribution of income and more economic security for citizens working as independent contractors and under non-permanent employee contracts. During the campaign the party emphasised that this was not only fair but necessary in order to limit the growth of populism, which it argues is the result of growing economic inequality and insecurity.
A victory for the pro-Europeans?
The Dutch elections are one in a series of European elections that will pit anti-European populist parties against traditional and new pro-European parties. The Netherlands follows the elections in Austria, and crucial contests are soon to be held in France and Germany.
Unlike presidential systems such as in France, Austria, or the U.S., the Dutch system does not anoint one leader as the victor. In the fractionalised political landscape, almost every party was able to declare itself a winner: the Liberal Party lost seats but remained the largest party, eight parties were able to increase their seat total, two parties won more votes but were not able to translate this in more seats, and one party (the Socialist Party, – SP) lost a seat but still declared the night a victory because they lost fewer seats than the polls indicated. So it would be difficult to say definitively that the populist forces or the pro-European forces have won or lost.
The Freedom Party of Geert Wilders is not the largest party, but in order to beat it the party at the polls, the Liberals (and the Christian Democrats) have co-opted the party’s rhetoric of exclusion and national interest. It would be naïve to claim that merely because it secured fewer seats than polled the Freedom Party is now ‘beaten’. Rather, policy-wise and rhetorically, the differences between the Freedom Party and the mainstream right are now very small. All these parties see the Dutch identity as being threatened by radical Islam and have focused their campaigns on symbolic issues such as singing the national anthem in schools and whether the public broadcaster should say ‘happy holidays’ instead of ‘merry Christmas’.
At the same time, the two most pro-European parties in the Dutch parliament have expanded their seat totals with an uncompromisingly pro-European, progressive, and cosmopolitan message. In parliament the GreenLeft and the Democrats 66 will form a counterweight to the Freedom Part. Their victory, however, came at the cost of the Labour Party. This traditional rallying ground of the pro-European Left was decimated, and what’s more whilst the Labour Party lost 29 seats, the Democrats and GreenLeft only won 16. The pro-European left-wing bloc has weakened.
Whilst the Dutch election may be one in a sequence of European elections that pit the Eurosceptical against the pro-European parties, it would be far-fetched to base expectations about the next ones on this one. In France, a new centrist pro-European Party (En Marche) is likely to face the Front National, as support for the traditional parties of the centre-left and centre-right dwindles. In Germany the traditional parties of the centre-left and the centre-right, the Social Democratic Party and the Christian Democratic Union, appear to be preparing to battle each other with the Alternative for Deutschland playing a more marginal role.
A new centre-right government
The path to a new government is clear: the parties of the centre-right, the Liberals, the Christian Democrats, and Democrats 66 share an overlapping agenda on socio-economic issues that, despite differences in cultural tone during the election campaign, will form the bulk of the coalition agreement. Together they are five seats short of a majority. There are three possible way to attain such a majority: they could be joined by the Labour Party (9 seats), the GreenLeft (14 seats), or the Christian Union (5 seats). As the Labour Party, which had governed with the Liberal Party in the previous term, saw a heavy defeat (losing three-quarters of its seats), they are likely to prefer to lick their wounds in the opposition. As the GreenLeft has major policy disagreements with the Liberals and the Christian Democrats on issues like climate policies, economic policies, and immigration that option also seems unlikely. As the centrist Christian Union (CU) is much closer to these parties and has strong personal bonds with them due to cooperation in the previous term, this alliance seems most likely.
The government will chart a centre-right course on socio-economic, environmental, and immigration policies, with the Democrats 66 and the CU softening the sharp edges of the Liberals and the Christian Democrats’ platforms. In essence, government policy towards the EU will remain unchanged: the government will seek to strengthen the European internal market and will support measures that are deemed necessary to maintain the Monetary Union and to limit the influx of Syrian and North African refugees.