The Dutch will vote in parliamentary elections on 15 March and, whatever the outcome, will set the stage for key elections across Europe this year starting with the first round of the French presidential election on 23 April.
Seldom has Europe followed Dutch elections so closely, and seldom have they been so unpredictable. So what can Europe expect from the Netherlands and what can we learn?
For decades Dutch elections were the most boring in western Europe, with the vast majority of people voting for the same party their whole life, creating only small electoral shifts. This changed in 2002, because of the shock effect of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the rise of the populist Pim Fortuyn, cut short by his murder nine days before the 2002 general election.
Although the political party that Fortuyn founded, the LPF, existed for less than six years, it fundamentally changed the political system. Dutch elections are now more volatile, the tone is harsher, and the issues broader with immigration and Islam now dominating most campaigns.
While unconnected to the LPF, Geert Wilders has in many ways taken Fortuyn’s role of enfant terrible, transforming himself from a conservative backbencher into a populist radical-right leader. Today, no article on Dutch politics is written without at least a mention of “the firebrand MP with the peroxide-blond hair” who has been in a neck-and-neck struggle for first place with his former party, the conservative VVD of prime minister Mark Rutte, for months now. The former political allies – Wilders supported the minority government of Rutte from 2010 to 2012 – have become political enemies. Wilders has been attacking Rutte and his policies for years now, while Rutte has categorically excluded Wilders from a future coalition government.
The Economist recently wrote that Dutch politics are a bellwether for Europe, arguing that developments in the Netherlands tend to be followed in other European countries a few years later. In a similar way, Politico described Wilders as “the man who invented Trumpism”. Both claims hold some kernel of truth.
Wilders is a relative latecomer to the European radical right; Austria’s Freedom party (FPÖ) and France’s Front National (FN) are decades older and their first electoral successes date back to the 1990s, years before Wilders split from the VVD and founded his Party for Freedom (PVV). At the same time, Wilders is literally a one-man show who was dominating Dutch politics through Twitter well before Donald Trump even considered running for president.
And while the Netherlands has set some trends in European politics, most notably in mainstreaming Euroscepticism and Islamophobia, it was not always alone – Denmark has undergone a fairly similar development – and still has specific Dutch features.
Across Europe, we can see three trends in elections, which can be described in the famous terms of the German-American economist Albert Hirschman: exit, voice and loyalty. In two of these the Dutch lead the way, but one bucks the broader trend.
To start with exit (non-voting), throughout Europe turnout in national and European elections has been dropping. Although the trend is not universal, the past 10 years has seen a sharp drop in several countries. Perhaps most shocking is the situation in Greece, a country that has compulsory voting, although it is not really enforced. In 1985 the abstention rate in national elections was “just” 16.2%, in 2004 it was 23.4%, and in the last elections, in September 2015, it was a staggering 44%. In other words, in a country with compulsory voting a modest majority of 56% turned out. Compared with that, the decrease in turnout in Dutch national elections is modest: in 1986 turnout was 86% and in the last two elections it was still a commendable 75%. Expectations are that turnout might actually go up in this year’s elections.
With regard to loyalty (the vote for established parties), the Netherlands is very much in line with the European trend. Most European countries have seen a sharp decline in electoral support for established parties. While this development is related to societal changes that date back to the 1960s and 1970s, such as secularisation and a shrinking working class, the decline of the established parties only became a broader issue in the 1990s, and has significantly increased during the great recession.
The process has been particularly pronounced in the Netherlands. Throughout the 1980s the three established parties – the Christian democratic CDA, the social democratic PvdA, and the conservative VVD – received around 80% of the vote. In 2002 that dropped to about 60% as a consequence of the rise of Fortuyn’s LPF, and it stayed like that until 2012 – although Rutte’s VVD is now bigger than the CDA and the PvdA. However, in the most recent polls the three parties only have some 40% of the vote, half of what they had in the 1980s.
At the same time, voice (the support for populist parties) has increased significantly. In the 1980s populist parties barely got more than a few seats in parliament, whereas in 2002 the left populist SP and Fortuyn’s right populist LPF together gained more than 20%. In the latest polls Wilders’s PVV is the largest party, or at least running neck-and-neck with the Rutte’s VVD, while the SP is struggling a bit – and has become less populist. Together they are close to 30% of the vote, of which the PVV would get almost two-thirds.
The combination of decreasing loyalty and increasing voice leads to fragmented and polarised party systems, which make it more difficult to form coalition governments – as we have seen in Greece and Spain, where new elections were necessary to break the deadlock. This is certainly a possibility in the Netherlands, where forming a coalition is almost impossible.
The two most likely outcomes of the Dutch elections are either a very broad coalition of four or five parties, with or without Wilders’s PVV, or a minority government, dependent upon temporary coalitions to get some policies through. Whatever the outcome, it will only strengthen political dissatisfaction, creating more fragmentation and polarisation, leading to even less loyalty and even more voice.
That is the main European lesson of the Dutch elections.
Cas Mudde is associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia and the author of The Populist Radical Right: A Reader (2017)