This post is for all my foreign friends, who were told that the Dutch elections have stopped the imminent tidal wave of right-wing populism. Long story short: it was not. If anything, populism won the Dutch election, even if Geert Wilders came in behind Mark Rutte. Here’s why.
Dutch elections are not about winning
Before I start this post, it’s important to address this common misconception. Because of our proportional representation system, each party gets an amount of seats on the Second Chamber (Tweede Kamer, our House of Representatives) equal to their share of votes in the election. There is no winner-takes-all game being played, and there were 28 parties participating in these elections, with 13 of them making it into the Chamber, half of them with less than 10 seats.
Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) won the most seats in this election, coming in at 33. That’s 33 out of 150 seats total. So, Mark Rutte may have “won”, he still only got slightly more than 20% of all votes. 80% of Dutch people voted for someone else. And yes, you still need a 76 seat majority to get pretty much anything done in Parlement. With the new allocation of seats, the VVD will have to form a coalition with at least three other parties to get that majority.
So, Dutch elections are about being able to participate in a coalition, not winning per se. Even if you don’t win, you can still govern. We’ve had parties with 10 seats or less participating in government, because they were able to form a majority coalition with bigger parties. And even if you win, you’ll still need help from the other parties to form a government.
Geert Wilders’ party grew
The Freedom Party (PVV), whose blond-haired figurehead we all know, held 15 seats last term. This term, it’s 20. So the right-wing populists actually saw their share of seats grow by 30%. In contract, the VVD, now at 33 seats, had 41 last term. So they may still be the biggest party, they’re actually losing ground, and the PVV is gaining. However, pretty much all of the bigger parties have declared they are not going to join a coalition with the PVV in it, so it’s extremely unlikely that they’ll be part of the government anytime soon.
Then, the populist metamorphosis
But, even if they are bigger than last term, if nobody wants to rule with them, doesn’t that mean that populism has been stopped? Well, it would have, if not for the fact that the VVD has become more populist itself, in order to compete with the PVV for the voters it obviously appeals to. Not only the VVD, but the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), the third biggest party these elections with 19 seats, has become increasingly more populist as well.
Both parties have adopted the PVV’s anti-immigration stance, with the VVD going as far as saying refugees from outside the EU are no longer welcome. Although the VVD hasn’t said anything nearly as radical as the PVV’s plan to “close all mosques”, they have made a huge campaigning point in saying inhabitants of the Netherlands should just “act normal” and “behave themselves”. Of course, they never specified what “normal behavior” is or entails, other than making some rather broad remarks about throwing your garbage in the bin instead of throwing it on the streets. Throughout their campaigns, both the VVD and the CDA were appealing to some vague collection of Dutch norms and values everybody was supposed to instinctively understand. Or at least, every “true Dutch” person would know what they meant. The CDA even proposed that Dutch schoolchildren had to learn to sing the Dutch national anthem, a completely ridiculous song about the war against Spain several hundreds of years ago.
All in all, the VVD, PVV, and CDA together account for some 72 populist seats in the Dutch parliament. That is almost half, almost a majority. For once, I actually hope that the campaign rhetoric was just that, rhetoric, and that the VVD and the CDA will revert back to their ideological ways now that election season is over. But quite frankly, I don’t think so. It won them a lot of votes, and I don’t think they’re going to abandon the nationalist stance they’ve taken. So, if anything, these elections, the right-wing populists won. Not by winning seats, but by hijacking the mainstream.
Also, the Progressive Left lost
Lastly, despite the explosive growth of the GreenLeft party from 4 to 14 seats, this doesn’t come anywhere near the growth of the populists. The center-left Labour Party (PvdA) crashed and burned from 38 to 9 seats. Of those 29 seats, 10 went to GreenLeft, 3 went to the radical left Animal Rights Party (PvdD), and 7 went to the progressive Democrats 66 (D66). The Dutch left hoped the other 9 would land with the Socialist Party (SP) or possibly the left-leaning Christian Union (CU). But no. The SP actually went from 15 to 14 seats, and the CU remained stable at 5 seats. So those 9 seats (plus that one seat from the SP) dissapeared from the Progressive Left and found themselves distributed elsewhere, in right-wing or conservative country.
The silver lining
What remains of the Dutch Left looks towards Jesse Klaver, the face of GreenLeft and the “Dutch Trudeau” according to some news outlets, to save the progressive movement. They are practically begging him to keep building that movement and no matter what, to not get into a coalition with the “poisonous” VVD. It seems pretty certain the progressive D66 party will be joining the coalition, and people seem to think that they should handle to progressive part of this next government, and that GreenLeft can come back next elections, possibly together with the PvdD, with even more seats.
And this could well be possible. Polls among young voters, aged 18-24, show that if it were up to just them, the GreenLeft party and D66 would have won a lot more votes. As usual, it’s young people who bring the potential for change, and I hope they’ll hold on to these ideals for the next elections.