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The Dutch General Elections: The Calm Before the Storm?

By Tom Vasseur

The 15th March will see the Dutch head to the voting booth to elect a new House of Representatives. It is the second in a string of significant European elections after the Austrian presidential election in December last year. So far, however, the election campaign has been almost surprisingly banal. Is this apparent return to political ‘normalcy’ real or is it a façade, and is it about to crumble or it is masking deeper changes?

In the Netherlands the new millennium was accompanied by a turbulent parliamentary political scene in which governments struggled to finish their term. Until now, that is. For the first time in nineteen years a Dutch government has managed to finish its term of office. In addition, most political parties during this election campaign have tended to focus on conventional political themes such as health care, pension reform, and education.

This might seem like myopia of the political establishment, but a survey carried out by the public broadcasting service showed that voters are only slightly more concerned with ethnic integration and migration than they are with health care. The fierceness with which migration was discussed lessened when the EU-Turkey deal drastically reduced the flow of migrants and refugees at the cost of human rights during 2016. So though it was unmistakably present during the campaign it didn’t manage to become a central topic. Instead, “norms and values”, a nebulous trope first introduced in the early 2000s during Prime Minister Balkenende’s first term, polled as the largest topic of concern. It had been reduced so it was less of an issue but it was still present.

Conspicuously absent are those topics which have dominated political discussions in the few years since the previous election; the state of the European Union, European border policy, maintaining economic stability are all left undiscussed, and while the election of Donald Trump has brought forth plenty of projections of the American situation on that of the Netherlands (and vice versa) it has not led to a debate on the need to rethink the Dutch relation towards NATO and European defence cooperation. Glaringly absent are even more fundamental issues such as climate policy, where the Netherlands is underperforming, or the need to rethink social policy in the light of rising automation.

This election seems to fall back on these so-called typical themes since no party has succeeded to set a definitive mood to which others have to adapt. Instead it is an almost postmodern election of disparate stories. Dystopian visions of a country brought to ruin by the establishment are contrasted by claims of the successful weathering of a stormy period, and mirrored by fears of an iconoclastic radical right taking over the country.

Green growth, left stagnation

One of the stories of this election is the rise of GroenLinks, the Dutch Green Party. Under the leadership of Jesse Klaver – who was handed the position of party leader by the previous party leader, Bram van Oijk, on his own initiative – the Greens have grown in the polls as the potentially largest party on the left.

This growth has mainly been driven by Klaver’s charismatic leadership. A conscious employment of personalistic politics and media strategy echoes Justin Trudeau or Barack Obama. His nickname – The Jessias, a pun on ‘Messiah’ – evokes a more historical, and sinister, comparison with the early Tony Blair. His and the party’s campaigning strategy has revolved around a series of well attended ‘meet ups’ – election rallies of a sort uncommon to the Netherlands – and a proactive social media campaign marked by attempts to create viral content surrounding his persona. The narrative he puts forward is a familiar one. He recites the tale of the domination of politics by neoliberal dogma in the last thirty years and the rise of the “populist” right as a reaction to that. However, unlike Geert Wilders or the SP (Socialist Party), he does not propose a return to the national welfare state of old.

The platform which he stands for is built around becoming a leader in climate policy and green economics, tackling social and economic inequality, and a more humane politics as opposed to one built on setting quantifiable targets to be reached. Concretely, these are to be reached by proposed measures such as closing coal plants and putting the polluter pays principle into practice, in the area of climate policy, and through economic measures such as fighting tax evasion, taxing assets higher, and pushing businesses to raise wages. These concrete policies exemplify the vision of a gentler politics. A common thread running through the GroenLinks platform on topics such as health care and education is also reducing administrative pressure in favour of trust in the good judgement of people.

If this polling trend translates into election results the implications will be significant and are indeed already being felt. The relations between the parties on the Left in the past two decades have to a large degree been determined by their size in parliament. The PvdA (Labour Party) always cast itself quite forcefully as the leader of the Left. Whereas previously this was simply an electoral reality, a situation is now arising where three out of four left-wing parties may be of roughly equal size.

The effect can be seen in the changing dynamics around calls for ‘Left cooperation’. Generally this opportunistic plea seems to have been uttered by the Labour Party, in order to place itself in a dominant position with regards to other left-wing parties rather than to create a coalition on the Left. Recently, however, initiatives for ‘Left cooperation’ have come more and more from Klaver. The most emblematic example is a recent theatrical gesture where he asked Lodewijk Asscher, the PvdA’s new leader, to shake hands on a promise to set up a left-wing government after the elections. Asscher did not, and could not, take up Klaver’s offer since it would have signalled a symbolic subordination of Labour to the Greens.

This internal change on the Left might enthuse Green militants, but in fact there is little good news for the Left in the Netherlands. The changing relations between Left parties have not translated into a growing Left. Instead the combined share of the four parties on the parliamentary left – GroenLinks, PvdA, the SP, and the PvdD (Party for the Animals) – has declined overall.

The last few years have been marked by the steady decline of social democratic political power and its traditional political project, the welfare state. The PvdA has been plagued by a decrease in membership in the last twenty years, but the last few years – marked by the Liberal-Labour coalition’s austerity policy – have been especially unforgiving. The 2014 municipal elections proved a large defeat for the PvdA, which even lost control of Amsterdam for the first time in almost a century. At this moment all polls indicate that they will receive less than 15 out of 150 seats in parliament. If these polls correspond to the actual share of seats held by social democrats after March 15 it will be comparable to the parliament elected in 1909.

This decline of the social democratic project has not been accompanied by a new Left project. While Klaver’s charismatic politics has been positive for the position of the Green movement within the Left spectrum it has not succeeded in reviving the Left as a whole. With the exception of climate policy, the GroenLinks platform, while consisting of good policies, is a programme of gradual improvements. Instead a vision is needed which engages with exactly those fundamental issues mentioned earlier which are not being taken into consideration during this election.

The nationalist pull

A second as of yet neglected trend is the turn towards the nationalist frame which Wilders has  imposed on Dutch politics. This election has seen parties take decidedly less pro-European positions. At best this has taken the form of less proactively advocating European integration – as done by the social liberals of D66 and GroenLinks – together with assurances that national pride is not a shameful thing per se. Most other parties have, however, decidedly turned against further integration.

On the one hand, there are the traditional parties of the political centre – the PvdA, liberal VVD, and the Christian democratic CDA – who have decided to speak out against further integration at this moment. Asscher has been most pronounced about this, going as far as to launch a doctrine of ‘progressive patriotism’. While rather vague in substance, its main goal seems to be reasserting the primacy of the national sphere in order to return to stronger welfare arrangements, echoing both the SP and Wilders. It leads to an odd mix of emphasising “Dutch values” while attempting to remain inclusive and proposing European social policy reforms to reduce labour migration [1]. Nevertheless, despite their rhetorical statements against further integration, it is expectable that these parties will support certain initiatives for further integration. Though only if they do not fundamentally alter the current institutions and power relations within the EU.

On the other side are the parties that want to completely overturn the current institutional makeup of the EU in favour of a return towards full inter-governmentalism. These include the smaller Christian parties, but also the Socialist Party which hitherto was profoundly Eurosceptic, but never openly spoke about a comprehensive reform programme for the EU. Still, Wilders remains the only prominent advocate leaving EU.

Another sense in which the nationalist pull is being felt is by the development of a lively, mostly right-wing, political fringe. These parties are mostly led by the figureheads of the Dutch referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and position themselves as a more acceptable alternative to Wilders. The left-wing exception, perhaps paradoxically brought forth by the nationalist pull, is the minority interests party DENK. The party was formed after two Labour parliamentary representatives resigned over integration policy. Its strategy of constructing an electorate from voters with a minority background, and especially Turkish-Dutch citizens, only has a chance of electoral success within the current nationalistic political environment.

The calm before the storm?

Whereas outside of the Netherlands the potentially massive victory of Wilders’ PVV seems to be the dominant feature of this election campaign, this is much less obvious from the inside. Instead it seems notoriously difficult to capture the red thread running through this election. However, behind the general impression of normalcy and the occasional semblance of action are hiding, upon closer inspection, developments which might have as large consequences for policy as those openly debated. Nevertheless, it is of course possible that this is another failure of judgement on the side of the mainstream of society; that the election will show that ethnic integration really was the dominant issue for the largest share of voters.

This election – with the exception of regular references to Donald Trump which function as a way to criticise Wilders without naming him – has advanced with an insularity typical for Dutch society. Still, this election is of great importance to European politics. The perceived impact of Wilders’ likely electoral victory might be exploited by the radical right in other European countries. Less predictable are the consequences of the equally probable political side-lining of Wilders.

Likewise, the issues left under- or un-discussed in the current electoral campaign are far from resolved. When they do finally surface, they will take both politicians and citizens by surprise. A prospect which does not bode well for citizens’ trust in politics or the quality of the decisions which will be made.

[1] The suggested measure to reach this which the PvdA has showcased the most is a reform of the Posting of Workers Directive (96/71/EC) that the “country of employment principle” will determine the minimum wages and social security contributions of posted workers. In this way, they hope to address the undercutting of wages by non-Dutch EU citizens.

The Dutch General Elections: The Calm Before the Storm?