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Has Populism Been Defeated in The Netherlands and What Lessons for EU?

Published on , , University of Twente

The elections in the Netherlands attracted so much media attention for the first time in recent history. The dominating narratives – domino-effect, Trump-effect, Nexit, Wilders vs. Rutte – were all simplistic and based on little understanding of the national context and Dutch political reality. Was this interest inflated? Not really. After all, 81.9 % of the Dutch electorate showed up to exercise their voting rights – a 30-year record high voter turnout. 

Why did the Dutch election matter?

First, the media narrative presented the election process as a one-off ‘defeat of populism’, ‘defeat of Wilders’. Case closed, next piece of the potential domino - France. The picture is more complicated, though, and if not told, the lessons to be learned will be lost as well. Second, paradoxically, this media attention, and our own experience with discussing the Dutch election in the media, made us realise how little we, Europeans, know about each other’s political systems and political ‘habits.’ Third, the issues underlying the Dutch electoral dynamics will surface and influence the European agenda in the coming years, through a government that is yet to be formed. Viable democracies rely on much more than elections. Between-election democratic politics goes on, after the media lime-lights are out,  so it is a good idea to pay attention. Hopefully, the Dutch story will contain some lessons for other European countries in terms of populism, EU-exits, media coverage, internal EU migration.

The main players

The Netherlands has one of the most fragmented multiparty systems in the world. Over twenty parties competed for the electorate's votes in this election. Contrary to countries like Germany or Bulgaria there are no thresholds that political parties must pass in order to enter Parliament. In a 150-seat Parliament and almost 13 million voters, getting approximately 65 000 votes means one seat. Voters usually vote for the top seed politician on a party list, but they may express personal preferences for politicians down the party listing. This way they usually vote for female or minority politicians.

The dominant political parties that are usually represented in a coalition Cabinet are three: Conservative Liberals, or Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD); Christian-Democrats, or Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA); and Labour,  or Partij van de Arbeid (PvdA). None of these parties ever had a 76-seat majority, so coalition government itself is also traditional. Smaller parties that are regular coalition partners are: Progressive Liberals, or Democrats 66 (D66); two smaller Christian parties, the (social) Christian Union (CU) and (conservative) Reformed Political Party (SGP). 

On the left of the political spectrum and so far never part of a coalition government there are two other parties: the Green-Left (a motley lot of greens, pacifists and feminists) and the populist-labour Socialist Party. A number of new parties were added to the mix, creating the unusually long ballot of 28 parties, including the newly established DENK - a predominantly Turkish minority oriented party, with an anti-discrimination agenda - and a curious party of the Non-Voters.

All foreign eyes were transfixed on Geert Wilders' right-wing populist Party for Freedom (PVV), which, strange enough, is actually not a conventional political party at all. With only one formal member, the PVV is an undemocratic legal construction (an 'association' and a 'foundation') for the political and social stances of Mr Wilders. It is actually a memberless virtual political party with just one leader, consisting of an nontransparent inner circle of some 80 activists loyal to Wilders; but disinterested in creating a larger loyal membership; communicating with a sympathetic electorate only through Internet. In Germany, PVV would be denied existence on the basis of the law on political parties.

The current government was a coalition of the Conservative Liberals (VVD) and the Labour Party (PvdA), led by the VVD’s leader Mark Rutte.

The Campaign

Foreign TV spectators were surprised and impressed to see the open manner of campaigning: leaders in the streets, mixing with people, lots of volunteers, often of two or three different parties, working together at busy locations, exchanging tips. Many parties registered a stronger-than-usual influx of new members, and local organisations supported the campaign, often grouped around the ‘local’ candidate on the list who would hope for some personal preference votes. 

Only Wilders did nothing of the kind. In fact, his campaign was sloppy, ill-organised, and largely invisible. Some speculated that he did not actually want to win. What are the explanations? One is indeed that Wilders realises that he does not have the capacity to govern, there are simply not enough capable and experienced people in his party, even if someone would invite him to govern. Another reason is that Wilders is the leader of a movement, not a party. There are no party members, only followers; practically no local structures in place. His channels of influence differ substantially from those of the traditional parties. Like Trump, he communicates with his followers through tweets. He seeks media exposure and hijacks every possible event with his extreme comments. With this style of behaviour, Wilders has managed to craft and maintain the image of an outsider to politics, in spite of his over 20 years of professional political experience as an MP!

Voters’ attitudes and orientation

In the last two decades, Dutch voters have become increasingly unpredictable. The ‘traditional’ electorate of the parties, based on the former segregated (Liberal. Catholic, Protestant, and Socialist) ‘pillars’ in Dutch society, behaved increasingly as a consumer shopping for the best personal deal between parties with small differences in their platforms. With the rise of radical parties at both ends of the political spectrum the turn to basic values and core orientations became apparent this time around.  

This trend is reflected in the boom of different online tools for voting advice. For the first time, in many years, voters tended to base their choice on core ideological issues, seen by many as game-changing: for or against ‘the establishment’; for or against Europe, and what kind of Europe; the costs and scope of social welfare, and even a hotly contested issue like extended euthanasia provisions. The ever more fragmented voting tools could not capture this search for clarity and fundamental orientations and went on to offer piecemeal advice on items ranging from teacher salaries to exotic preferences of bird lovers.

School elections

An interesting detail in Dutch voting events is the tradition of school elections. While for younger pupils this is a way to get acquainted with the political system and the electoral process, the results from the upper secondary school elections are actually followed with heightened interest. Obviously, students aged 15-18 are close in attitudes to first-time young voters aged 18-25, and thus the results are a strong indication of emerging trends. The school elections' big winner this year – the Green-Left – did indeed emerge as the strongest player on the left in the actual elections, largely due to young and higher educated voters. But the more important impact of these school elections is that they are preceded by extensive political education throughout the school year, training students to orient themselves in the political landscape, to decide on ideological and policy issues and to make up their minds: a skill to be employed in the next elections. This is one of the explanations for the traditionally high activity of Dutch voters.

Public debates in various formats and levels

A record high of 3.3 million people watched the concluding debate on the National Public Channel – about three times more than the previous elections. This was a good precursor of the record high election turnout on election day. More importantly, the number reflects the record high number of undecided voters, in the last evening before election day. To a large extent, the interest in the concluding debate reflects the disappointing vagueness of the previous debates – usually orchestrated, superficial and limited to rehearsed one-liners and talking points by the participating party leaders; or, in some cases, distorted by overly aggressive journalistic focus on personalities instead on substance. 

The topics of discussion were a mix of ‘core’ ideological messages – Europe, national identity – and specific policy issues – cost of health coverage, road tax systems etc. This mix reflected the same kind of ambiguity demonstrated in the online voting advice applications – the game-changing issues were dispersed for many and were difficult to capture. Probably more informing and influential were the numerous live debates throughout the country, at university campuses and municipal town halls, where dialogue with the public broke the pattern of ready-made messages.

As a whole, particularly commercial media, informed by premature polls, inflated the Rutte vs. Wilders narrative, which was picked up by media abroad. It was easy to present without delving into the intricacies of Dutch political system, the good guys and the bad guys were clearly recognisable, and a final sprint at the end would always make the public excited.

The scandal with the Turkish ministers

The dominant narrative was only reinforced by the stand-off between the Netherlands and Turkey. A diplomatic scandal of this format (Dutch authorities actively stopped Turkish ministers from addressing 'their' voters living in the Netherlands), caused tension among Turkish minority citizens in the Netherlands, and obviously impacted the elections. Naturally, the media focused on the dividend to be gained by either Rutte or Wilders. Wilders found himself in a tricky position: he could not capitalise on the scandal without appearing to be a supporter of Erdogan, since Erdogan announced that by flaring up hatred towards minorities only Wilders would gain support from the events.

In reality, the more direct impact was on minority voters themselves. Some of them were beginning to see the newly established party DENK as a broad anti-discrimination party. When DENK leaders failed to take any stance against Erdogan’s increasingly inflammatory actions and remarks, many voters, with ethnicities other than Turkish, changed their minds and did not support the party. Although it is not at all that clear if the party leaders really support Erdogan or are just afraid for repercussions, the issue turned out to be defining the party’s new face as an ethnic Turkish party.

Who got mobilised to vote?

It was the ‘mainstream’ voters who felt alarmed by the imminent threat of Wilders winning and got out to vote. Many people thought it necessary to defend ‘normality’ in the Netherlands. In this sense, ‘the Trump effect’ - the fear of too much division and polarisation - was probably playing a role. Wilders or other copy-cat parties in his populist sector did not succeed in mobilising protest votes by first-time voters who had not been engaged with ‘the system’ until now. Within this ‘normal’ range, at least 30% (some estimated them at 50 %) of the voters were undecided a day before the elections, many of them literally making a choice in the voting booth. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this happened both on the left and to the right oriented voters. Traditional party preferences were broken, sometimes after decades of stable choices.

The prevalent mood on election day was positive – a day to reaffirm democratic freedoms, to celebrate the Dutch way. Voting was well organised and directed at facilitating people in exercising their right to vote: from polling stations at busy places, particularly train stations, through additional voting booths and mobile polling stations in busses, drive-through stations, to the exotic idea of letting young people vote in the small hours of the day, after a pop concert. The media celebrated unusual first-time voters such as a 52 years old homeless man, or curious cases with voting tickets rescued from wastebaskets or destroyed by house pets. And yet, controversies with possible electoral fraud and hacking attempts in other countries, particularly in the United States, lead to the decision to count all tickets manually, as a precautionary measure. The manual counting had a largely symbolic meaning against the backdrop of speculations about Russian interference with the Brexit vote, for instance. Eventually, the final results had to wait for a bit longer.

Rutte won, Wilders lost

This is the part where all the media started packing their equipment. The VVD, the liberal conservative party led by prime minister Mark Rutte, won over Wilders, who had to compete for  the second place with two more parties and barely passed them. The Liberals won, the story goes, populism was defeated. Was that really the case?

To begin with, Rutte won and lost at the same time. The ruling party actually lost a considerable number of seats and still came out first (down from 41 to 33). There are some convincing reasons for this loss. In a traditionally egalitarian society, due to harsh VVD-initiated austerity policies the distance between an established elite (15%) and uncertain workers and a precariat (30%) has grown ever larger. There is overdue maintenance and repair work to be done in some of the traditional state functions. Intended reforms in the police, the judiciary, and public prosecution have run into implementation, expertise and integrity problems. Even the tax apparatus' effectiveness is currently in doubt through badly executed reforms. All of this under the wing of a VVD-led Ministry of Safety and Justice. Most scarily, the VVD's campaign platform proposes to damage rule-of-law in the NL by abolishing the right for citizens to check Dutch law against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and go to the European Court of Justice.

Still, Rutte did come out first, and this victory was more than symbolic. Three main reasons contributed to his moment of triumph: 

First, strategic vote. Rutte’s campaign successfully capitalised on the media narrative on the Good Guy versus the Bad Guy, and managed to convince many to vote strategically. Liberal voters from other parties were pulled to the right, in order to make sure that Wilders did not end first. It was a matter of national pride for many Dutch people. As a woman put it on election day, ‘I am so ashamed that the whole world is looking at us right now, because of Wilders.’ How many seats did this strategic vote secure, remains to be seen in future demographic analyses of the outcomes.

Second, the Erdogan effect, obviously. Rutte, the country’s prime-minister and leader of the Conservative party, booked the greatest profit from looking ‘presidential’: the leader of a country in crisis, with leaders of all political colours united behind him. Rutte is traditionally good in this role of a leader, most notably played during the tragic shoot-down of the MH17 flight. Emotions might have had a mobilising effect now, too.

And third and most important, the fear of losing voters to Wilders led to adopting quite a lot of his rhetoric during the campaign. Two possible readings of this phenomenon should be noted. In a more cynical view, one could say that Wilders became obsolete, because he became ‘mainstreamed,’  as hard language against minorities and refugees was used not only by Rutte’s party, but also by the Christian Democrats. The other reading is the familiar mechanism that fringe or radical parties are the first to signal issues perceived as important but neglected; and mainstream political parties also start picking them up somewhat later.

Why was Wilders declared a loser?

Geert Wilders gained five more seats (up from 15 to 20), compared to the previous election and yet he was still perceived as a loser. Why? For months in a row, his party was dominating each and every poll and appeared unbeatable at over 30 seats. The expectations were high, among supporters and rivals alike. But Wilders did not deliver. He ran a sloppy campaign, hardly appearing at events, conspicuously refusing to take part in television debates and to respond to any media enquiries. Some even say that he did not want to come out first. This would have brought him in the humiliating position to ask for coalition partners and to be publicly rejected by all of them! Plus, his unconventional way of campaigning helped him to maintain his branded image of a provocative outsider.

Wilders chose to expand his electorate through ever more radicalised and hysterical Islamophobia. The wide-spread concerns about safety and the influx of refugees notwithstanding, the number of people who see Islam as the main culprit turns out to be, after all, limited. In fact, many interviews with PVV voters suggest that they voted for him in spite of the anti-Islam rhetoric, and supported him out of a more generally felt social and political discontent. To these potential voters, his generic, virtually non-existent party platform, did not provide enough reassurance and specific policy measures to support. Maybe his time is just gone. Maybe his type of populism is out of fashion. Maybe this ‘wrong type’ of populism was defeated, as Mark Rutte said.

Was populism really defeated?

The short answer is – not really. To begin with, PVV was not the only party running on an openly populist agenda. If we count the left-populist votes, the ethnic DENK party, the one-issue ‘50+’ party, and the Wilders copy-cat - Forum for Democracy - we see that almost 30% of the voters chose populism. Some of the newcomers display more radical, and more divisive tendencies than Wilders already. In this sense, populism is fragmented, dispersed, or in search of a new face. The fact that one third of the voters put faith in easy promises, unrealistic plans, or hate messages remains worrisome. A serious discussion on the nature of populism, its different versions and sources of appeal is beginning to emerge in the Netherlands.  Mark Rutte tried his hand at positing a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ populism and stated that the good sort has won.

But at least racism took a beating, right?

Maybe, partly. Wilders, undoubtedly the most powerful and recognisable Islamophobia and inspiration to racists, took a blow by the majority of Dutch people. However, the openly racist Forum for Democracy (don’t get fooled by the name) will have two representatives in Parliament. The enfant terrible of Wilder’s hate message - the party DENK, a direct mirror response to his racist message - also found its place in Parliament with three seats. If it weren’t for the troublesome ties to Erdogan, one could be inclined to see this party in a positive light, as the hopeful sign of emancipation: minorities putting their predicament on the national agenda.

Racism is not an easy topic for the self-proclaimed ‘tolerant’ Netherlands. Their distorted historical self-image until this very day disparages slavery and structural violence in Indonesia, the colonial past and the role of the Netherlands in apartheid in South Africa. The discussion is still centred around the contested image of ‘Black Pete’ – an innocent ‘traditionally Dutch’ children’s character to some, and a painful reminder of slavery and racism to others. There was even a political party that emerged from the debate, though it didn’t make it into Parliament.

Thus, identity remains an issue on the agenda. Given the new constellation, national identity, integration, culture and religion will have to be addressed in a systematic way, and not only for the sake of attracting votes.

A shift to the right or a new left?

One party – the Labour Party – was nearly destroyed in these elections (down from 38 to 9 seats!). Various explanations have been offered: the party has been punished for participating in a coalition with the Conservative Liberals and was forced to approve unpopular austerity measures; the party leadership was not strongly charismatic enough; they refused to go 'with the flow' of anti-refugee rhetoric. All of these are valid, but not sufficient: we may have just witnessed the death of traditional social democracy in the Netherlands. Traditionally a party anchored in mainstream Dutch politics, the Labour Party had the tendency towards clientelism, particularly for its ethnic minority voters. The new party, DENK, was established by break-away Labour MPs. Effectively, they took their electorate with them as well. Even more importantly, the Labour party did not succeed in attracting young voters, mainly due to their ambiguous message on two major issues – climate change and Europe.  

The uncontested winner on the left side was the Green-Left party. While the factor of the young leader’s personal charisma and appeal, particularly among first time voters, cannot be ignored, most voters had substantial reasons to switch. First, for years, the Green-Left party has been seeking a right balance between the ‘green’ and the ‘left’ part of its constituents. With the general shift to the right, the liberal-minded voters appear to take prevalence. Second,  traditional supporters of the Labour Party were not convinced that their party offered a realistic perspective for the challenges of the future.

The long-term health of the Dutch polity depends on the way the governance system deals with the finally emerging high politics issues to do with striking a viable balance between national and frequently populist identity politics and inevitably continuing globalisation. The victory of the Green-Left is an indicator that voters are turning towards new types of parties, more dynamic, but still with a recognisable ideological core.

Similar processes are taking place in all winning parties (D66, and the dark green Party for the Animals/Planet), which means that the death of traditional party structures may have been prematurely declared. To the contrary, the parties who attracted more voters are successful in expanding their basis at the municipal level and to focus on canvassing, direct contact with the public and a merging of municipal and central issues in the campaign. This is a new and interesting trend, since the opposite has been the case – the national political agenda has been dominating municipal elections. This trend may be reinforced by recent transfer of considerable policy responsibilities, for instance in the area of youth and social services for the elderly, to local governments.

Europe, the elephant in the room?

Europe was simultaneously the most divisive and the most obscure issue in Dutch election debate. On the surface, pro-European sentiments clearly won. For most media, end of story. During the campaign, the issue was avoided as much as possible, like the proverbial elephant in the room.  It is clear to everyone, though, that the debate about the actual content of the pro-European sentiment, and the different brands of Euroscepticism will inevitably come high on the post-election agenda. Instead of dealing with migration and the EU by a populist blame game, the Netherlands and other countries as well need a serious, honest debate on all the relevant high politics issues entailed. If the Netherlands must be a bellwether, let it be the inspiring first to engage in such debates in the run up to its own and other European countries' elections.

Why no Nexit?

First of all, the Dutch electorate was probably affected by an overall European mood swing. All over Europe, the more moderately oriented citizens disapprove of the turmoil and uncertainty sparked by Brexit and the Trump administration in the US. They simply prefer economic stability and predictability in their own lives, which, let's face it, are not so bad after all. Second, most Dutch realise that a Nexit is not an option for the open Dutch distribution economy. Dutch small and medium businesses are tied to Europe as much as the big global corporations are. Hence the Europe-friendly base in the Netherlands is probably broader than elsewhere.

Third, don’t be fooled: no-Nexit is perfectly compatible with continued, long-term Euroscepticism as long as  the underlying issues of identity, integration, discrimination, refugee influx etc. have not been sufficiently resolved. Only D66 is an enthusiastic supporter of the idea of one Europe under the European Union. Most other parties feature one type or another of deep Euroscepticism. The Socialist party rejects the EU because it does nothing for a social and just Europe, and favours labour migration which threatens wage levels for Dutch workers. The Dark Greens (Party for the Animals/Planet) reject the EU because they see it as a vehicle for planet-destroying big business. 

The Conservative Liberals and Christian-Democrats share a number of objections to the EU: to build a real Fortress Europe against refugees from the Middle East and Africa border control has to be strengthened; they share the Socialist Party's objections against uncontrolled labour migration; they want to tone down the EU's political aspirations to just economic and trade partnership; and they are in favour of a Europe of 'different speeds', meaning the Netherlands, Germany an some other countries could de-link from 'laggards' in Southern and Eastern Europe.

What's next?

The election outcome does not unambiguously translate into a clear direction for what government the Dutch will have. The outcome only delimits arithmetically which coalitions are possible, because they get 76 or more seats in parliament. Which coalition that will be, depends on the skill of those who negotiate. Here are the three major possible scenarios and their political difficulties:

First option is a green-right, 'rainbow' coalition, consisting of the winning loser VVD, and the three winners: CDA, D66 and Green-Left (85 seats). The political and policy differences between these parties are huge; but there is policy space due to a considerable surplus on the state budget. This is why the most powerful business lobby - VNO/NCW - advocates a right-green government, in line with the idea that business needs a firm ‘greenish' government stance as push for massive green investments which make the economy fit for the future.

In case negotiations for this 'rainbow' coalition break down, the second option is a centre-right government (a minimal coalition with just 76 seats), where Green-Left is replaced by the smaller Christian Union. Their push for more social justice (softening austerity policies and financial prudence) and more climate friendly measures is far more modest than Green-Left proposals. But on ethical issues, especially facilitating euthanasia procedures for old people who claim their life is 'completed', D66 and the Christian bloc of CDA/CU have unbridgeable principled differences.

Should this centre-right coalition also be still-born, there is a third option: a minority cabinet of VVD, CDA and D66,without a fixed and certain majority in the Lower (Second Chamber) and Upper Houses (First Chamber) of parliament. The Netherlands would become similar to another small European nation, Denmark, which has more experience with minority governments. As the Danish example teaches us, this option may not be bad after all. According to many internationally comparative rankings, the Danish are a very happy and well-governed people!

Tackling the deep issues of serious politics for the Netherlands in the coming years - a sustainable economic business model, a dynamic labour market flexible enough to accommodate radical technological developments, a robust pension and healthcare system able to equitably deal with an ageing population, the refugee and labour migration issues inherent and unstoppable in a globalising world, and fighting the nationalist-populist inclinations of people who feel a 'loss of entitlement' of living in a changing 'Holland' that is no longer 'theirs' - this web of issues can be dealt with only with an open mind and lots of flexibility and creativity. Governing with shifting majorities may prove to be the most flexible and adequate political answer to the challenges of a highly fragmented political landscape. A minority government may be both risky and simultaneously the best bet for prudent governance in The Netherlands.

Prof. Dr. R. Hoppe, Dr. M. Jeliazkova, University of Twente, The Netherlands, March 30, 2017

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