In the Netherlands, there is an air of uncertainty hanging over the next elections that will take place on Wednesday, June 9th. Will the new government include the populist and xenophobic candidate Geert Wilders whose results in the March municipal elections took everybody by surprise? Or will there be a return to a more traditional coalition of centrist parties? Whatever the outcome, relations with the European Union seem likely to suffer according to historian Christophe de Voogd. Touching on programmes, populism, social security and Europe, Mr. Voogd discusses the stakes that are at play in the Dutch elections.
Touteleurope.fr: What are the factors that led up to the planned elections on June 9th?
Historian and professor at Sciences-Po, Christophe de Voogd is the author of a study entitled Netherlands: the populist temptation, published by Fondapol.
To find out more:Christophe de Voogd : The Netherlands is traditionally a coalition country as the voting system is fully proportional. However, breakdowns of coalitions have occurred quite regularly in recent years. Since the assassination of populist leader, Pim Fortuyn, in 2002 (whose party then made a breakthrough in the legislative elections), the country has been in a period of political instability.
The current coalition lasted three years before falling on a specific issue – Dutch involvement in Afghanistan which the social democrats (PvdA) do not want to extend while the Christian Democrats (CDA), the other dominant party in the coalition, do.
But obviously, there were other issues. On the one hand, reaction to the economic crisis: the Dutch government, like all other governments, was examining austerity measures which are necessary but which nobody wanted to take responsibility for. The Minister for Finance (socialist) and Deputy Prime Minister found himself in a difficult position which could have resulted in him being labelled Holland’s “hatchet man”.
On the other hand, the instability and volatility of opinion have enabled other possible coalitions to be considered. The Socialist Party and the Labour Party have thus decided that it is time to break the coalition and that is the reason there are elections this June.
Touteleurope.fr: Who are the main candidates on the list? What are the polls telling us? Why do we expect a rise for the social-democrats and the far right?
The main parties in the Netherlands:
Christen-Democratisch Appèl (CDA) - Christian-Democratic Appeal (conservative Christian) – 41 seats – party of the current Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenende.
Partij van de Arbeid (PvdA) – Dutch Labour Party (social-democrat) – 32 seats.
Socialistische Partij (SP) – Socialist Party – 25 seats.
Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD) – People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (liberal-conservative leaning) – 22 seats – led by Mark Rutte.
Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV) – Party for Freedom – 9 seats – led by Geert Wilders.
GroenLinks (GL) – Green Left – 7 seats.
ChristenUnie (CU) – Christian Union – 6 seats.
Democraten 66 (D66) – Democrats 66 (social-liberal) – 3 seats.
Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij (SGP) – Political Reformed Party – 2 seats.
Partij voor de Dieren (PvdD) – Party for Animals – 2 seats.
Christophe de Voogd : Since 2002, the Netherlands has really been undergoing a period of political instability (although there were other such periods previously). Observers therefore have difficulty gauging public opinion that has, to some extent, left behind its traditional habits.
The Netherlands was traditionally a country with strong political loyalty where people generally voted for the same party all their lives. For the last few years, this has ceased to be the case. There have been swings in electoral results with greater participation from new ‘appealing’ parties such as Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) – a populist, right-wing party.
The polls demonstrate this volatility as well as the major uncertainty surrounding the June 9th results. Many voters stated that they have yet to make a definitive choice.
However, it is quite possible that the liberals, the VVD, will win which it never has before (traditionally the Labour Party or Christian-Democrat Appeal win).
If it does win, the VVD has two possibilities: a coalition of the right (with the Christian-Democrats CDA and Geert Wilders’ PVA, thus a strongly populist coalition) which it has not discounted (unlike in France where the right traditionally refuses to ally itself with the far right). The other choice is a centrist alliance (Liberals, Labour and a small part of the centre-left, the Democrats 66), similar to the purple coalition that led the country from 1994 to 2002.
According to the polls, both cases would result in having more than the 75 seats necessary for a majority.
The purple coalition seems to me the most probable. This is because Dutch political culture has not tended towards the tradition of extremes, right or left, but also because Geert Wilders has been experiencing a fall in the polls over the last few months.
We can never be too sure however because a variation of 2% (which is the margin of uncertainty in the polls), and especially the unstable period that the Netherlands is going through (including risk of major incidents inside and outside the Netherlands) could totally change the landscape.
Touteleurope.fr: Is there a chance that Geert Wilders will participate in government? In general, what are the reasons for the recent growth of the far right in the Netherlands?
On March 6th 2002, the populist candidate Pim Fortuyn was assassinated by a far-left activist. On May 15th 2002, the Pim Fortuyn List received 26 of the 150 seats in the lower House of Parliament. On November 2nd 2004, the director Theo Van Gogh, whose last film denounced the subordination of women in Islam, was assassinated by an Islamic fundamentalist. Christophe de Voogd : This growth started before the assassination of Pim Fortuyn whose popularity was on the rise when he was assassinated, unlike Geert Wilders whose popularity is waning.
Populism, however, is not exclusively a Dutch phenomenon. Everywhere in Europe, there are similar parties. In the Netherlands in particular, the growth in populism is linked to the economic crisis but also to a crisis of political representation which is much bigger than in France. The main slogan of the PVV programme was an attack against the ‘elites’. Here, we are returning to the classic cry of populism – Power to the people! Down with the elites!
Furthermore, the very strong political loyalties and traditional trust in democracy that existed in the Netherlands has been eaten away.
The Dutch electoral system, which favours coalition governments, does not explain this rejection. This system is in the country’s genes and it neither creates any real problems nor is it questioned by any party. There are discussions on the introduction of the referendum but not on the representative system.
Touteleurope.fr: What are the main issues in the campaign? Is the campaign mobilising Dutch citizens?
Christophe de Voogd : Citizens are mobilising either with a vote of support for their traditional party or by a protest vote such as a vote for Wilders. Those who vote for Wilders know there is little hope of seeing him in power and they do not even want to see him in power.
I would like to stress that, like elsewhere in Europe, right-leaning populism responds to left-leaning populism. For example, the main far-right (PVV) and far-left (Socialist Party which is to the left of the Labour Party) parties are the only ones that are refusing to increase the retirement age beyond 65 years. Likewise, there are parallels in the stance of these two populisms towards Europe with both espousing vicious anti-European rhetoric.
For the last ten years, the Dutch political spectrum has been moving towards the right. For example, the issues that Pim Fortuyn focussed on are now shared by other parties such as the Labour Party. As a result, a very restrictive immigration policy and a tougher crime policy have been put in place. Today, the issue of security is in all the government parties’ programmes. Top of the list is the Liberal Party whose campaign slogan is ‘Putting things back in order’.
It should be noted that for the last few years, net immigration into the Netherlands has been negative and this is not the case in the rest of Western Europe.
Strong attachment to the social security system remains. The people are not in favour of an ‘ultraliberal’ society but do believe in keeping the essential parts of social benefits while allowing for progressive reforms (increasing the retirement age but without reducing pensions).
This election campaign has had quite an anti-European tone. Apart from the Democrats 66 who are very pro-European, all government parties are in favour of a re-evaluation of European competencies. Unlike the liberal parties in the rest of Europe, the Dutch Liberal Party (which is under the influence of former Commissioner Bolkestein, a euroskeptic) wants to reduce the – already quite low! – community budget. During the Lisbon Treaty negotiations, the Dutch were against the mention of European symbols (anthem, flag) in the treaty.
So whoever forms the coalition, we can expect the Netherlands to distance itself from Europe. Of course, this will be more noticeable if the PVV (which wants, among other things, to renationalise the domain of immigration) enters into government.
Touteleurope.fr: Has the Belgian crisis and the rise of Flemish independence parties had an impact on the Dutch elections?
Christophe de Voogd : Not at all! The Dutch consider what is happening in Belgium to be quite remote to them and are even a little condescending about it. With the exception of the PVV, which has taken up the populist ‘Great Netherlands’ tradition and has one eye on Flanders, the rest of the political spectrum has little interest in what is happening in Belgium except maybe for the purpose of making fun of it!
Touteleurope.fr: Could Commissioner Neelie Kroes become prime minister if the Liberal Party (VVD) wins the elections
Christophe de Voogd : It does seem that she herself would be ready to make this great sacrifice! In any case, that is what she has hinted. Neelie Kroes is a very popular figure due to her international status and the fact that she is an historic figure in the Liberal Party.
Having said that, Mark Rutte, the young leader of the Liberal Party, has led a very good campaign and has no desire to give up his position. So, the prospect of seeing Ms. Kroes as prime minister is by no means certain...
To find out more:
The Netherlands – (FR) - Touteleurope.fr
Christophe de Voogd, The Netherlands: The Populist Temptation – Fondapol
Biography of Christophe de Voogd (FR) – Nonfiction.fr