Yesterday, the final results of the Dutch election were made official. Mark Rutte, head of the liberal-right VVD, will likely stay in office for another term, despite suboptimal management of the pandemic and a massive scandal concerning welfare benefits. E&M‘s Eden Lutz gives us her analysis of the election – and what it means for the future of the Netherlands.
On 15, 16, and 17 March, the Dutch population had the questionable honour of voting in the first parliamentary elections in Europe since the start of the Covid19 crisis. The campaign lead-up, which was inhibited by the lockdown restrictions, seemed to play out in slow motion, and was characterized by lethargic polls and mediatic non-events. Still, the results had some surprises in store – most notably, and perhaps encouragingly, the stable turnout (79,2%) in the face of a pandemic and a decrease in trust in politics and institutions.
The centre-right liberal VVD remains the largest party with 35 seats, as polls had predicted, which means that Mark Rutte is set to stay on for a fourth term and become the longest incumbent prime minister in the history of the Netherlands. Centre-left liberal D66, under the new leadership of former UN diplomat Sigrid Kaag, is the second-largest with 24 seats, thanks to a remarkable surge; it is likely that many progressive voters decided to vote strategically at the last moment. This would also partly explain the historical implosion of the traditional left, where the left-wing environmentalists (GroenLinks), socialist party (SP) and social democrats (PvdA) are in for the biggest losses, receiving no more than 25 seats between the three of them. The largest confessional party, CDA, hoped to finish second, but was also confronted by a considerable loss, ending up with just 15 seats, thanks to a bumpy campaign trail and an electoral base that seems to be secularizing and/or going extinct. The radical right, despite some losses for its largest party PVV, is bigger than it has ever been, with a combined total of 29 seats.
The real story of this election, then, is the incredible fragmentation of the Dutch political landscape, taking place across the entirety of the political spectrum
Those who are counting might already have picked up that this does not make a 150 seat parliament. A large number of smaller parties, some of them newly elected, fill the remainder, resulting in a parliament that is made up of 17 different parties. The real story of this election, then, is the incredible fragmentation of the Dutch political landscape, taking place across the entirety of the political spectrum. On the left, there is newcomer Bij1, which pledges to fight for radical equality and against racism and discrimination; also, the animal rights party (Partij voor de Dieren) is steadily gaining ground with its environmentalist signature and its opposition against industrial farming (which has become especially relevant in this pandemic). In the centre, the young pan-European party Volt has booked a remarkable success with its progressive liberal love letter to European integration. On the far right, previously marginal party Forum voor Democratie, which has promised an immediate end to the lockdown measures and openly flirts with conspiracism, has made the largest gains, together with its offshoot JA21. Dutch voters appear unfazed by the internal strife, that lead to the split between the two factions, after reports came out about racist and antisemitic discourse within the party’s group chats . This small but growing group is accelerating towards a complete dissociation from reality – questioning fatality numbers, suggesting voter fraud, accusing the media of fake news… is any of this ringing a bell?
Paradoxically, the Netherlands seem to be, at the same time, more divided and more stable than ever
Looking ahead, however, it is hard to say what consequences this fragmentation will have for government formation. Paradoxically, the Netherlands seem to be, at the same time, more divided and more stable than ever. Whether it is a rally-around-the-flag effect or a feat of political genius, the VVD managed to remain the largest party with a campaign centered around “manager” prime minister Rutte, of which the general message seemed to be “well, he’s here now anyway and he’s not doing that badly”. They were able to control the narrative of the election in such a way that the only ideological opposition that gained traction was that of the far right, which was going to be excluded from coalition formation anyway. The traditional left could not formulate a credible counter narrative to the government’s handling of the Covid19 crisis, of which it had largely been supportive, even though criticism was warranted; nor could it shift the attention to other key themes, such as the climate crisis and socioeconomic inequality. This was especially painful to watch with regard to the childcare benefits scandal that forced Rutte’s cabinet to resign in January this year, in which more than 20,000 families were wrongly accused of fraud by the tax authorities – at least half of them had been singled out for special scrutiny on the basis of ethnic origin or dual nationality. It would be expected that a mismanagement of these proportions, which has caused such suffering, would exert some degree of reckoning.
The Dutch did not wake up in a new country on the 18th of March. Yes, the surge of D66 is remarkable and might result in more progressive nuances in the next government – especially if it manages to include a more left-wing coalition partner. Increased fragmentation means that parliamentary debates will last even longer (the regulations that determine speaking time are about the only egalitarianism in politics left undefeated). The smaller factions have less manpower and experience, which endangers parliamentary control. We’ve gained few extra fascist politicians for the media to painstakingly analyse in order to determine whether they are really, actually fascist. The search for a raison d’être for the traditional left continues with a renewed defeatist zeal. In the end, the Dutch electorate has once again allocated the main share of power to Rutte’s VVD, the ultimate embodiment of the status quo.
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