A GUIDE TO UNDERSTANDING THE DUTCH 2017 ELECTIONS
In this more personal As Seen From Afar I’d like to put the perspective upside-down and try to explain the results of this week’s election to those who have followed it from afar, worried that the Dutch might end up with ‘another Trump’ by voting for populist Geert Wilders of the Party voor de Vrijheid (PVV), lit. Party for the Freedom.
First of all, let me explain why it was very unlikely the Dutch would end up with a second Trump, and to do so I have to delve into the history and rules of our election system a bit, so bear with me for a moment.
One major difference between the American and the Dutch system is that officially our head of state is our King so we do not elect a President as head of state; our head of government is the Prime Minister, or Premier, who also isn’t directly elected. We have a parliament, which consists of two chambers and of which the Second Chamber, or Lower House, is the basis for a government. It has 150 seats, which are filled through elections using a party-list proportional representation: all votes are equal and every vote counts as one.
So far, so good, as we say. After the elections, usually the leader of the party that “wins” the election, i.e. most seats in the 2nd Chamber, also gets to have a go at forming a government. If he (until now it has always been a ‘he’) succeeds, that person becomes the Premier, the head of government. Of course the Premier has little or no power/authority compared to an American president: no presidential decrees. Appointing ministers in the Premier’s cabinet is usually a complex game between his party and others.
You may have noticed I used a lot of ‘usually’ and quotes, and that brings me to the second reason why Wilders could not have become the Dutch Trump. As described above, the 2nd Chamber has 150 seats, to be filled by all the fractions that get enough votes to fill one or more seats. But here’s the rub: this year there were 28 parties to choose from and of those 13 made it into the 2nd Chamber. This means that seats are scattered among parties and a majority government can only be formed by forming a coalition, as usual.
The graphic above has Dutch text, but I’ve added it to give you an idea of how elections have developed in the Netherlands from 1959 onwards and to illustrate why the Dutch were not as alarmed about the prospect of a Premier Wilders. The top graph represents all fractions and their seats in the past three elections, the red-barred graph on the left the number of fractions since ’59 and the one below the minimal number of fractions needed to form a coalition since then.
Foreign reports on the issue often portrayed the election as a fight between the Geert Wilders and the Premier at the time, Mark Rutte (VVD), where in fact is was Wilders against 27 other parties. With our tradition of coalition governments not one Dutchman expected a Canadian Trudeau-effect of a majority win, not even Wilders himself I should think. He could of course have become the largest party, and before the campaigns started that seemed a reasonable possibility. But it’s effects were further countered by all major parties promising to decline to form a coalition government with the PVV, denying Wilders the possibility of ever becoming a Premier.
Trump’s election success in November 2016, which undoubtedly greatly influenced Wilders’ polling numbers, pushing him beyond that of Mark Rutte’s VVD, had made Wilders very cocky, crowning himself Premier even before the election campaigns were anywhere in sight. He adopted a lot of Trump’s rhetoric and communicated a lot through tweets and bullied some of the press. But as Trump’s star started to fade when he took office this year, so did Wilders’.
Wilders was responsible for most of his own decline. During the campaigns he was conspicuous by his absence; he didn’t join in the debates where more parties were present except for the last debate between Rutte and himself only, he did few rallies – perhaps cautious because his earlier conviction for insulting a group of people and enticement to discriminate, and he had little contact with his base, which he could partly attribute to failing security measures. He was asked to release his party program, like all other parties do, but could offer no more than one sheet of paper with a few bullet points and a few [to be filled in later]s, but no plans whatsoever and ending with a damning “etcetera“. By election time Wilder’s polling numbers had come down already, and even though our own media tried to whip up a bit more tension by referring to the “forgotten voters”, Trump and Brexit, that never resulted in the anxiety felt across our borders.
So, with a poll attendance of over 80% – no, the Dutch have not all turned away from politics – Rutte’s VVD has lost seats but has come out on top with 33 seats, and Wilders has won 5 seats but hasn’t matched his peak of 2010 of 24 seats with only 20 now. Rutte is expected to form a new government, Rutte III, together with numbers three and four.
So is all well now in The Netherlands? In my opinion, not really. While populist Wilders may seem to be slowly on his way out, quite a few new right-wing populist have taken his place by way of Denk (3 seats, popular among Turkish-Dutch), Forum van Thierry Baudet (2 seats, popular among Alt-Right), and 50Plus has doubled in size (4 seats, popular among the elderly). Labour has been annihilated, while the CDA, a Christian coalition, had chosen to aggressively fill the nationalistic and anti-Islam shoes that Wilders had failed to fill in debates and thus has managed to resurface and to become the third-largest party after Rutte’s VVD and Wilders’ PVV. Rutte’s party is called a liberal party in Europe, which is not to be confused with American liberals; the VVD sits firmly on the right of the political spectrum and has been responsible for the austerity that nearly bled us dry in the past. In all likelihood the new government will consist of right wing VVD and CDA and centrum party D66 with an additional small party to obtain a majority, which will be a further shift to the right, while at the same time it has to govern with an unruly opposition of a diversity of Social Democrats and populist parties.