Dutch Elections and Europe: the Dutch political ‘center’ asserting itself no reason for complacency

The Dutch elections have passed, Dutch people have spoken. After months of heated debate and fierce campaigning, 80% of Dutch electorate came out to the ballot box yesterday to cast their vote. All of Europe was watching, and many commentators expressed a sigh of relief when the party of mr. Wilders (PVV) did not become the largest. Quickly people claimed this to be ‘a victory for Europe’, or in the words of the current PM: “A clear ‘no’ to ‘the wrong kind of populism’.”

This may be a bit too quick a conclusion.

It is early in the day. The final results will only be confirmed by next Tuesday. It may be wise to take a deeper look at the complex party political landscape of the Netherlands and try to assess what actually emerged yesterday.

For weeks, the polls indicated a close call between the Conservative VVD of the current Dutch PM, mr. Rutte, and the PVV of mr. Wilders, each fighting for the lead which in the Netherlands as coalition country gives one the first right to form a coalition government. After the diplomatic clash between the current government of the Netherlands and the Turkish government over an unwanted proposed referendum rally by Turkish ministers in Rotterdam last week, it appeared that many people last minute turned to the VVD instead of the PVV, landing mr. Rutte’s party in a comfortable lead yesterday.

Overall, a majority of Dutch citizens yesterday turned to the established center parties. If this election shows anything, it is that the tacit Dutch political center reasserted itself. However – and here is the major caveat – it would be misleading to read this as back to business-as-usual. Underneath the ‘grey-right or green-right’ coalition government, which will most likely now emerge, several strong socio-economic and cultural changes are manifest, which constitute the deeper transformations in the Dutch political arena. And they may not be unique for The Netherlands.

These changes can no longer be characterised in terms of traditional opposites. Especially among the younger electorate, left-versus-right labeling no longer applies, if you see which shifts-of-parties voters have actually made. Generally speaking: people vote much less collectively, and much more on the basis of individual current concerns. They vote less for ‘programs and manifestos’, more for individuals/individual issues and different senses of self and future. However, people are still carried by deeper cultural preferences, which are not always so explicitly discussed.

What appeared yesterday is that:

  • Young people have voted in large numbers for social liberal parties as D66 (liberal democrats), the Greens and an ecological party (Animal Welfare party PvdD). For their European orientation, this choice can be welcomed, since all these parties propose international openness, a strong, reformed Europe, and inspirational politics, which is what especially the young Green Party leader was offering his supporters. However, many of the youths which came out in strides to support these parties are middle-class, higher educated. It remains to be seen how many of the other youths actually voted. Recent reports worried about their connection to the political scene, specific groups of youths may have stayed home.
  • ‘Identity politics’ and specific issue parties dealing with basic human rights (such as Art. 1) have entered the scene. One ‘identity party’ DENK, a spin-off of the Labour party, strongly focusing on the rights of migrant communities, has swept up the votes of some people in migrant communities (2-3 seats), who traditionally voted Labour. Their concerns are serious, their gains may also relate partially to the conflict with Turkish president Erdogan last week, which left many Dutch citizens of Turkish background uneasy.
  • The Dutch social democrat party (PvdA) has lost dramatically and is now reduced to being the 7th party in the Parliament. The Socialist party (SP) is the sixth party and also lost one seat (against the expectations in the polls). The Labour losses were especially dramatic in the cities. The major urban centers have turned to the Conservatives on the one hand (i.e. entrepreneurs, SMEs, corporate interests, e.g. Rotterdam) and to the D66 and Greens (new urban liberalism, e.g. Amsterdam, Utrecht, Groningen) on the other. Thus, the traditionally Labour/social democrat urban centers such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Groningen, Utrecht etc Labour have moved to three other parties, leaving the social democrates diminished to their very hard core electorate.
  • This continues a downward trend for the social democrats, which has been there for a while but was blurred by the unexpected, tactical victory the party had in the 2012 elections. Whereas Labour had already lost much of its old Labour base (unions etc.) to the Socialist Party before the 2012 elections, they now also seem to have lost many of their higher educated, liberal progressive urban voters and many of the young. A very dramatic result indeed, which deprives them of a lot of innovative power and social base. Much of this needs to be further analyzed. Commentators seek the initial answer for Labour’s demise in the ‘governmental style and self-centeredness’ the party has adopted in government, and the fact that the compromises they had to strike with the Conservatives were often harder to explain to Labour supporters (many of the policies being closer to Conservative dictums). It is significant, however, that the Socialist Party did not benefit from Labour’s loss either. In fact, some of the SP voters may actually have transferred to the Wilders party, as people who feel nobody is looking after their interests.
  • The shifting electoral sympathies also demonstrate that the party-political system is not a very strong vehicle of ideological positions anymore. People switch more easily between parties. This is reflects deeper socio-cultural and economical divides, even within the current parties, which are visible in the following:
  • The ultra-conservative, national conservative and nationalist forces are now spread over a part of VVD, part of the Christian-Democrats, Wilders party PVV and Forum for Democracy, the small Christian parties and part of the Socialist Party (SP). They are split into center conservatives (i.e. VVD Conservatives, part of the Christian-Democrats and the small Christian parties, which add up to 60/150 seats; nationalist populist forces (Wilders PVV and Forum voor Democratie), which up to 22/150 seats; and old Socialist party forces which are culturally often conservative (14/150).
  • The progressive, urban liberal democratic, Green and ecological forces are spread over D66, Greens and PvvD and add up to 38 of the 150 seats) (19 plus 14 plus 5 seats respectively). The Dutch Labour party is reduced to 9 seats and has to reinvent itself. It is very unclear where it will position itself in opposition and from what premises it will seek its regeneration, a situation which again is not unique for The Netherlans, but in different forms and shapes also applies to social democrats in other European countries.
  • This Dutch election was characterized by the emergence of a wide range of new small parties, many representing specific issues of identity or cultural roots not served sufficiently by the major parties. The fact that none, except for DENK and the Forum for Democracy (FvD), made the threshold to enter Parliament does not diminish the importance of this trend of fragmentation.

Given all these subplots, we should be very wary of settling too quickly into a victorious rhetoric, or fall into the trap of new complacency. Surely, progressive Europe constructive parties will enter government. And surely, the Wilders forces did not take the lead. For a variety of reasons, they dispersed. And yes, identity and one-issue parties did not win major gains. But the sentiments are there and represent real concersn of people and a tough set of social challenges, which in a mature democracy should not be ignored.

Adding everything up, the social polarization is not gone. The mixed majority of Dutch moderates has asserted itself. But at least 20-30% of the Dutch electorate feels attracted to nationalist policies, feels underserved by established politics and expresses fear or opposition to internationalism, multiculturalism and ‘Europe’ as an anonymous projection screen. The fact that many of the Wilders supporters voted last-minute for the Conservatives does not mean their discontents have now subsided. The people attracted to Wilders are now spread over Wilders own party (PVV), the VVD (the winning Prime Minister’s party), the newcomer Forum for Democracy (with 2 seats), the CDA and others.

The fragmentation and continued social disconnects put a huge burden on whoever will govern next, to build the bridges, of the kind that during election campaigns are never built.

Godelieve van Heteren, Chair of Europese Beweging Nederland (European Movement The Netherlands)