Dutch elections: a bittersweet assessment

By on March 20, 2017

Parliamentary elections in the Netherlands have rarely attracted so much attention from abroad. The quadrennial democratic procedure was described by the foreign press as another point in the global struggle between advancing populism and all others opposing it.

Fears over a populist, extreme-right victory turned out to be unfounded, resulting in a sigh of relief throughout Europe. The victory of the liberal-conservative party (VVD) over the populist extreme-right (PVV) as well as the advancement of a pro-Europe (D66) and a green party (GroenLinks) constitute a general rejection by the Dutch voters of the rationale that led to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Without ignoring the concerns that will continue to exist in a globalized world, a majority of Dutch voters showed preference to deal with them in a rational, constructive and European way. A high turn-out of 80% surpassed the percentage of the previous elections (74%) and reaffirmed the continuous and broad confidence in parliamentary democracy.

However, despite the avoidance of a populist far-right triumph, a few points with lasting implications deserve to be mentioned.

First, the trend of leveling as well as fragmentation of the political landscape, already visible in the Senate, continues. Traditional big parties are losing seats to the benefit of small and newly formed political groups. Twenty-eight parties participated in Wednesday’s elections with the 150 seats distributed to thirteen parties. The fragmentation complicates the formation of a government and impedes decision making processes.

Second, there is an increase of one-issue parties: political parties that have basically one objective and do not have an overarching political strategy nor an ideology in their core. These new political players accrue power not necessarily to hold political office, but to advance and draw attention to their own cause.[1] They often bypass the advisory structures that traditional parties have built up over decades. But the lack of a well-developed strategy on all political issues erodes the quality of political office.

Third, concerns that incite certain voters to support the PVV are politically still very relevant. The PVV went from 15 to 20 seats, a new far-right populist party (called Forum for Democracy) obtained 3 seats and several other parties sharpened their program on migration and identity politics. It became clear during the campaign that immigration, integration and the place of Islam in Western society are top priorities for a whole range of voters. Overall, voters have chosen a much more right-wing parliament.

Fourth, the political spectrum is characterized by fluid electoral preferences. Voters easily shift to other parties, making them less bound by underlying ideologies or political ideas than by contemporary political rhetoric. This trend, illustrated by the Labour Party going from 38 to 9 seats, and GroenLinks from 4 to 14, increases the unpredictability and in fact compels parties to follow the electorate.

Fifth, two new parties have entered Parliament that do not fully grasp the idea of liberal-democracy: Denk and Forum voor Democratie. The former (3 seats) is strictly focused on Muslim population, uses trolls to influence social media and has defended the demise of democracy in Turkey. The latter (2 seats) has postulated sympathy for Putin, is advocating leaving the EU and cultivates ‘alternative facts’. Both parties are keen on scapegoating, banishing critics and undermining the legitimacy of the free press. Henceforth, the populist section in Parliament will occupy now 25 of the 150 seats.

To sum up, the Dutch have expressed preference for moderate right-wing parties over regressive forces. However, the fact remains that many concerns related to identity politics are relevant for a broader range of voters. Moreover, other common problems in contemporary democracy, like fragmentation, polarization and populism are still looming.

Internationally, it is likely that the future Dutch government, which will be formed in the coming months, will continue to be pragmatic about European cooperation. Outright anti-European forces have not managed to gain wide support. This dissolves the negative result of the 2016 referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement into an insignificant anomaly. Therefore, ratification of the Agreement seems now finally secured.

[1] Moisés Naím, The end of power (New York, 2013) 76-80

Author: Emiel Van Den Toorn
Emiel has an academic background in human geography and Russian studies. He has fulfilled traineeships with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Council of Europe and the European Commission. During his academic and professional career Emiel has worked on energy policy, European Neighbourhood policy, Russian hybrid warfare and Russian identity.

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