A Guide to the Dutch Elections

The Dutch elections feature the European version of Trudeau, a hardline Dutch version of Marine Le Pen, the current head of an extremely unpopular government who is polling at half of his weight back in 2012, a Christian Democrat who is suddenly considered as his more reliable alternative on the centre-right, and the evergreen pro-European progressive liberal. What is more, all the parties headed by these leaders currently average between 11% and 16% of the polls, making this the most uncertain election in years. The main electoral themes are social security, the pension age, healthcare, education, immigration and integration. Only to a much lesser extend the environment, Europe and the global geopolitics are being discussed during the campaign, as these items are not considered a priority by most voters.

The system

Squeezed in just before the French and German elections, the elections in the Netherlands are not yet getting much international attention. Perhaps this is also the consequence of the Dutch electoral system: on 15 March citizens are electing the 150 members of parliament with a full proportional system. Only after the elections the parties (traditionally by initiative of the leader of the biggest party) will build a coalition strong of the support of at least 76 members of parliament, which means that it is often impossible on election night to know what parties will end up governing the country. This also means that votes are spread around all sorts of parties, including a party for the elderly (50+), a party for animals (PvdD), a party for immigrants which is suspected to be directly linked to Erdogan’s AKP (DENK) and party of orthodox protestants (SGP) – all of which are expected to receive one or more seats.

The losers

Since 2012 the Netherlands are ruled by a coalition government of the liberals (VVD) and the Labour Party (PvdA), the two big winners of the last elections. Despite being the first government in over a decade sitting its whole course, that brought the annual GDP growth rate to a steady 2% and the unemployment rate to a low of 6%, many citizens are critical of a government that increased pension age, reduced student benefits and made healthcare more expensive. The two parties that form the unlikely coalition will therefore both suffer big electoral losses per the most recent polls. The Liberals are expected to shrunk from 27% to 16%, but are still projected to become the biggest party. They pay for a scandal at the Ministry of Justice that involved some of its most prominent politicians and a beginning tiredness with Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who has been in that function since 2010. Polls expect an even more dramatic loss for the Labour Party, down to 8% from 25%. Voters seem to be disappointed by the many concessions on social policy that the party made to its coalition partner, making life more expensive for many low-to-middle income citizens and cutting on welfare benefits despite a budget surplus. If Labour Party leader Lodewijk Asscher doesn’t succeed to turn the losing tide, his party will suffer the biggest electoral defeat in history and it will most likely end up in opposition: this might lead to some European reshuffling, as Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem is a minister of the PvdA. First Vice-President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, is also a member of the PvdA, but his position should not be affected by the elections.

The winners

So who are winning the hearts of the voters that leave the VVD and PvdA? The Greens (GL) are the party expected to book the biggest increase. Their 30 year old charismatic leader who is sometimes likened to Justin Trudeau, Jesse Klaver, regularly fills sport palaces with thousands of supporters, and thanks to a grassroots campaign that was inspired by Obama’s, the polls of GL rose to an all-time high of 11% up from the disappointing 2% of last elections. Klaver was voted winner of the last television debate, and might have the momentum to become the “leader of the left”, a position that greatly benefited then-PvdA leader Diederik Samsom back in 2012.

At the total opposite side of the political spectrum we find the ultimate stayer of Dutch politics, far-right Geert Wilders of the PVV. His party is currently polling at about 15%, down from 22% at the beginning of the year but at a win compared to the 2012 elections, when the PVV was one of the big losers and gained only 10% of the vote. Wilders is infamous for his position towards the Islam, which he considers the biggest threat to Dutch identity, and the European Union, which make for an easy comparison with Marine Le Pen. His campaign strategy so far is… not to campaign… which is not paying off at all so far.

Two parties that are considered centre-parties complete the set of potential winners of these elections: the Christian Democrats (CDA) of Sybrand Buma and the pro-European progressive liberals (D66) of Alexander Pechtold. Both parties are polling around 12%, and have a history of building coalitions with both leftwing and rightwing parties. CDA has always been a ruling party until 1994, after which it alternated periods in government and in opposition. While it has lost most support in the major cities, it is strong in villages and smaller cities outside of the Randstad. D66, on the opposite, has been the driving force behind the introduction of marriage equality and euthanasia, and is much stronger in major cities. Both parties could still fall or grow, and Buma and Pechtold – two likeable middle-aged centrists –are indeed tipped as being the most likely alternatives to Rutte in the function of Prime Minister.

So what is going to happen?

This year’s elections are particularly unpredictable, with five parties (VVD, PVV, CDA, D66 and GL) polling between 16% and 11%. Usually the last week before the election two or more leaders emerge as potential Prime Ministers, which benefits their electoral results thanks to tactical voting. However, this year it is possible that no party will enjoy such benefit. In any case, we will not have a most likely coalition ready on election night yet. Analysts therefore predict that the Netherlands will not have a new coalition government until summer.

Political parties are scared off by the polls of the PvdA as a result of the grand coalition between a left-wing and right-wing party, and some parties such as GL and the Socialist Party (SP), polling sixth at 9%, openly advocate for a centre-left coalition together with PvdA, D66 and CDA. On the right, VVD clearly excluded a coalition with PVV, which makes the most likely coalition to be built around VVD, D66, CDA and a forth party, possibly GL or some minor Christian party. Election time in the Netherlands makes for strong contrast between the parties, but ultimately the Dutch are proud of being a coalition country and of their polderen culture: up to the next grand centrist coalition?

Robert Zielonka is the President of the Graduates of Democracy. @ZielonkaRobert

Featured image: the party leaders during the debate last Sunday. Left to right: Klaver (GL), Roemer (SP), Rutte (VVD), Thieme (PvdD), Pechtold (D66), Krol (50+), Asscher (PvdA), Buma (CDA). Wilders (PVV) refused to participate.


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