Election preview: Netherlands

The Netherlands go to the polls tonight, in the first big national election of the year. I went through some of the background on Friday, so let’s quickly review the basics.

There are 150 seats in the House of Representatives, elected by D’Hondt proportional representation across the whole country. There is no threshold, so any party with about 0.7% of the vote can win a seat. Eleven parties won seats at the last election, in 2012, and it is expected to be more this time, but there is a clear gap between the seven serious players and the also-rans.

Last time, the right-liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the centre-left Labour Party won a majority between them (41 and 38 seats respectively), and formed a coalition government with VVD leader Mark Rutte as prime minister. There is no prospect of retaining that majority, but there are plenty of other mainstream parties as potential coalition partners.

The large majority of the Dutch voting population is comfortably centrist, and there is no doubt that the new government will reflect that.

Yet the media attention, of course, has all gone to the far right: to Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV), who are currently running second in the opinion polls (behind VVD), with around 15% of the vote. Any votes for neo-fascism are too many, but it’s still worth stressing that 85% of Dutch voters are steering clear of the PVV’s extremism.

It’s even more important to stress that the prospects of Wilders ending up in government are essentially zero. Even if the PVV reaches 20% and leads the other parties, it will not provide the prime minister or even win a share in government. All of the other large parties are committed to keeping it out.

But most of the media coverage ignores these simple points, and paints the Netherlands as a seething mass of anti-immigrant sentiment all ready to elect a Trumpist government. Even the very sensible Damien Kingsbury in Crikey yesterday inexplicably suggests that “the PVV is expected to receive close to 30% of the total vote, or 29” seats. (30% would actually be more like 45 seats, but Wilders is tracking to get only half of that.)

Polls close at 9pm local time, which is 7am in eastern Australia. The electoral commission’s site is here; “Tweede Kamer” is House of Representatives (literally “second chamber”), and otherwise Dutch is pretty straightforward to decipher.

The unknown last-minute factor in the election has been the government’s fight with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan has been trying to send his ministers to campaign in western European countries (apparently in violation of Turkish law, but that’s another question) for next month’s Turkish referendum on increased presidential powers. They have been prevented from holding rallies in a number of countries, but most spectacularly in the Netherlands, where one minister was refused permission to land and another was escorted back to the German border.

Erdoğan in response called the Dutch “Nazi remnants” and accused Rutte’s government of “acting like a banana republic.” Not surprisingly, the government’s stance has been extremely popular, making it difficult for Wilders to get traction on what would otherwise be a good issue for him.

In a televised debate between Rutte and Wilders on Monday, Wilders argued that the government should have gone further and expelled the Turkish ambassador. According to the BBC report, “Mr Rutte’s reply – that the remark showed the difference between ‘tweeting from the sofa and governing the country’ – won him a sustained round of applause.”

Although Rutte and Wilders will most probably lead the two largest parties in the new parliament, putting them head to head like this is also to some extent misleading. Although his party is a member of Liberal International, Rutte has tacked rightwards on the immigration issue, and the majority of the vote will almost certainly go to parties with more progressive positions.

Going by the latest polls, the other five main parties – the Christian Democrats, D66 (left-liberals), the Green Left, the Socialist Party (ex-communists) and Labour – will win something like 80 seats between them. It’s unlikely that they would sit in the same government, but with another 20 or more seats going to smaller parties, there will clearly be options for a coalition to exclude not just the PVV but the VVD as well.

The fact that the media ignore things like this and concentrate on the far right may not be entirely a bad thing: sometimes extremists just need to be given enough rope. Concentrated scrutiny certainly seems to have helped burst the One Nation bubble in Western Australia, and letting Wilders make a fool of himself on national television may have a similar effect. The massive coverage given to the Trump administration in the US probably also helps.

But the downside is that foreign readers are given the impression that the Netherlands is a much less successful and tolerant country than it really is.

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