Mar 172017


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.

2 3 do 16 mrt. 2017 NRC Handelsblad NRC Digitale editie

2 3 do 16 mrt. 2017 NRC Handelsblad NRC Digitale editie

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.

2015-03-17 22:40:37 DEN HAAG – VV-fraction leader Geert Wilders (L) en Premier Mark Rutte after a debate

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.

Jul 172016

hedgehog-looks-binocularsMost Americans will be aware that the Republican Convention will start tomorrow, but for those living elsewhere that news may have been eclipsed by the shocking news of other events such as the horrific attack in Nice or the attempted coup in Turkey. For those who want to do a quick catching up, get some background information, familiarize themselves with this particular convention for the first time or are just interested in a Dutch view on a very American happening, the translated article below may be of interest.


Monday the Republican Convention starts in Cleveland: a lot of air time for Donald Trump, the most unpopular presidential candidate ever. In the next few days in Cleveland Trump can thoroughly reorganize the party.

By our correspondent Guus Valk in Washington.

“Schedule of the Convention will be announced tomorrow," Donald Trump tweeted last Wednesday. "Let’s talk today about Crooked Hillary and the corrupt system under which we are suffering."

After this tweet eight days of silence set in around Donald Trump. He did produce names of speakers for the Republican Convention in Cleveland, which commences on Monday, let alone come up with a schedule. Only at the end of this a provisional list week was published. That list was more than remarkable, especially because of the many names that are not on it.

There are hardly any party public figures on the list. Former presidential candidates Mitt Romney, John McCain and Bob Dole will not attend. The whole Bush family is absent. There are just as many Trumps who speak as senators do (both six). Only four of the 31 Governors are willing to give a talk. The list is supplemented by speakers from the network TV world, where Trump feel at home. TV stars will be speaking, such as former model Antonio Sabàto, Jr. and Kimberlin Brown of The Bold and The Beautiful.

This is not a Republican Convention.

Donald Trump will have himself crowned this week in the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland as presidential candidate for the Republican party. But of that party there’s hardly a trace. Republicans who can afford to stay away, won’t show. Instead outside the motorcycle club Bikers for Trump will drive around, complete with weapons and flag-waving. They’re going to "guarantee the safety" of the visitors, said a spokesman. "Paid rioters on Trump-meetings throw eggs and become violent. We won’t permit that here."

Four days of Trumpism

American political parties organized Conventions until well into the twentieth century to decide who could lead the party. This task has slowly faded into the background. Conventions became applause machines, tailored to primetime TV.

That is why Conventions last four days these days: those are four nights of free advertising on all networks. The week after the Republicans the Democrats will show how that’s done: applause, balloons, confetti and no hassle around the candidate, Hillary Clinton.

This Republican Convention is different. This is no celebration of conservatism, this is four days of Trumpism. Trumps ideas are miles off from the Republican consensus, they are often even contradictory to it.. The party leadership is deeply embarrassed by the candidate who has won the primaries, and rather sees the coming Convention as an advertisement against the Republicans. In November not only a new president is elected, but also a large part of Congress. The party leadership fears losing the majority in the Senate and see Trump as a great risk.

However, the party is not a mechanism to dump Trump. The Democrats have built in the mechanism of 'super delegates', unpledged public figures with voting rights, through which the elite can smother the chances of any unwanted candidate. Republicans don’t have this escape. They have to make do with the candidate whom the voters, often not even tied to the party, decide on. The horrified party leadership saw how Trump managed to defeat sixteen competitors.

Donald Trump is having himself crowned as presidential candidate for the Republican Party at the Republican Convention in Cleveland, Ohio.

Donald Trump is having himself crowned as presidential candidate for the Republican Party at the Republican Convention in Cleveland, Ohio.

Gap between top and voter

This is not unique to the Republicans. Whenever political parties in Western democracies allow their constituencies to choose a leader, this may well go wrong for party leadership. Just think about Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn: unpopular with his fellow party members in the House of Commons, and not seen as a leader who brings in votes for the party. Yet someone who retains his position because he does well with active constituents.

Trumps situation is similar. He benefits from the huge gap between party leadership and Republican voters. Speaker Paul Ryan of the House of Representatives, de facto party leader, wants the party to modernize. Republicans need to stick to the core conservative ideas, such as a small government, low taxes and traditional family values. In addition the party must open itself up to a changing America. Latino-voters, African-Americans, young women should also feel at home, he says, because the base (older white men) is shrinking.

Donald Trump has cut across this strategy completely. He became popular because he took aim against 'political correctness'. He took on his own party as well as Democrats. Trump is not in favor of free trade, calls for preservation of the Welfare State and is not at all against government intervention. That is, as long he leads that government. He’s insulted virtually all groups in American society, making it impossible for Paul Ryan’s broad coalition ever to succeed. Trump's support among black voters is around 1%.

Trumps natural base consists of lower educated white voters who believe that they are the losers of Barack Obama's America. That has been a mighty group during the Republican primaries, but not for November, when Trump will have to convince floating voters.

Although the dissatisfaction with Trump is large, there may be in Cleveland virtually nothing more can happen to dethrone Trump. Of course, the #NeverTrump movement is still alive. This initiative is led by influential conservatives who think Trump is without principles. They were active this week in subcommittees on party rules, those nobody normally pays attention to. They tried to change the rules for the Convention.

This was the plan: at the moment delegates must vote for the candidate who won in their district, their own opinion does not count. The anti-Trump-camp wanted to turn it into a 'conscience vote': delegates should be able to vote whichever way they want. That way Trump’s position might crumble. But Trump’s stalwarts saw through the intrigue and swiftly put an end to it.

What now? Riots? Chaos? Everything is possible, like as a ' 1976 ' scenario. That also was a year of great internal unrest. The party leadership wanted to nominate president Gerald Ford again, but conservative populism haunted the party. Ronald Reagan tried to depose Ford at the Convention in Kansas City and just failed by a narrow margin.

As was the case in 1976, behind the current division an ideological conflict is hiding. Today’s Reagan, Ted Cruz, will speak at the Convention, while still not openly supporting Trump. Many conservative Republicans see him as their last hope. Perhaps Cruz can become the present day Reagan. Because admittedly Reagan lost at the Convention, yet won the nomination four years later.

Chaos lies in wait

Many Republicans still think of Trump as passer-by, and that his followers will disappear of their own accord. Maybe congressional elections will turn out better than expected in November. And if Trump loses the White House, that's no disaster either. Everything will return to normal even faster after November. Even a chaos at the Convention – riots, anarchy, shouting – suits the elite just fine.

But the next few days in Cleveland Trump has the opportunity to thoroughly reorganize the party. There is a new party platform to vote on, in which Trumps ideas will play a large role.

Opponents barely get the stage. For a whole week Trump will have ample opportunity to give a new impulse to the Trump brand.

Which is desperately needed, because he is by far the unpopular presidential candidate in modern history (Clinton is in second place). But, as ally Newt Gingrich worriedly noted this week, chaos is lurking. "This is all new to him. He is someone who thinks he can cobble together a Convention in a few days."

This article was published in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad on Saturday, 16 July 2016, page 16-17