Election preview: Netherlands

Four years ago, the Dutch election was a scene of high drama, at least as the media portrayed it. It came hot on the heels of the “leave” victory in the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election as US president, and during the campaign of Marine Le Pen for the French presidency. So it was fitted into the “rise of the far right” narrative, with Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom (PVV), supposedly on the brink of great influence and even power.

In 2021 things look very different. Trump is gone; Brexit is old news; and Le Pen was crushed by a two to one margin in the second round by Emmanuel Macron. And the Western Australian landslide, which might already have clued the media in to the fact that the far right was not universally popular, was repeated last weekend in even more brutal fashion.

Wilders is still there. He did not, of course, win power last time; the PVV won 13.1% of the vote, and is polling around the same this time. It is, again, in a tussle for second place with the Christian Democrats (CDA) and the left-liberals (D66), who last time had 12.4% and 12.2% respectively. And all of them are, again, well behind the right-liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), which in 2017 topped the poll with 21.3% and is polling at about that or a little higher.

The Netherlands votes as a single electorate with pure (d’Hondt) proportional representation, so turning vote numbers into seats is easy. VVD won 33 of the 150 seats, PVV 20, CDA and D66 19 each, the Greens and the far left 14 each, the centre-left nine, and another six parties shared the remaining 22.

That left the two liberal parties plus the Christian Democrats, a fairly natural combination, with a total of 71 seats, five short of a majority. After an extended period of negotiations, in which various other combinations were explored, they teamed up with the Christian Union, a somewhat more conservative party, which had five seats, bringing the total to 76. VVD leader Mark Rutte continued as prime minister.

He remained in that position until two months ago, when he and his cabinet resigned over a welfare payments scandal that was strongly reminiscent of the Robodebt affair in Australia, but with an element of accountability added. They have continued in office in a caretaker capacity, and barring something unusual Rutte (who is only 54, despite having been in office since 2010) seems set to return to the job following the election.

In the meantime there had been movement on the far right: Wilders’s star waned, and a new force, Thierry Baudet’s Forum for Democracy (FvD), muscled in on his territory. For a brief period in early 2019 FvD led in the polls. But the novelty wore off; it declined rapidly, and late last year it imploded spectacularly. It’s now back to the low single figures (last time it had 1.8%, for two seats) and Wilders has resumed his accustomed position as the leader of the far right.

But it won’t do him any good. The other parties are no more likely to deal with him than they were last time, and the overwhelming majority of the Dutch electorate remains committed to the mainstream. Even his Australian acolyte, Cory Bernardi, has faded from the headlines.

The other parties will probably finish in roughly the same order that they did in 2017. The social democrats, who did particularly badly then, have recovered some ground at the expense of the Greens and the far-left Socialist Party. D66 seems to have slipped a bit, as has the pensioners’ party, 50+. Two new parties look like (just) making it into parliament: JA21, a more moderate breakaway from the far-right FvD, and Volt, a transnational pro-European party.

The four governing parties in aggregate are polling at very close to half the vote, so it will be touch and go as to whether they retain their majority. But even if they don’t, it seems unlikely that any radical restructuring will be on the cards.

Polls close at 7am tomorrow, eastern Australian time, so results will come through in the course of the morning; last time the exit polls were very accurate. The electoral commission’s website is here, and there’s a rather thinner English version if you find Dutch too intimidating.

5 thoughts on “Election preview: Netherlands

  1. ‘After an extended period of negotiations, in which various other combinations were explored …’

    ‘Extended’ is right. It took them 225 days. That’s over seven months with a caretaker government (or ‘demissionary cabinet’, which I presume is a translation of something which sounds less odd in Dutch). That’s not a world record (which is held by Belgium), but it’s a record for the Netherlands. If the four-party combination put together after the 2017 election doesn’t hold its majority, that record may well be broken; even if they do hold their majority, there may still be a lengthy period of negotiation before a new government is formed. The Australian system could surely be improved, but this is one particular shortcoming I’m glad we don’t have to put up with.

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    1. Yes, indeed! It was particularly odd because they ended up with the same combination that had been talked about from the start. I think the problem was that D66 wasn’t happy about teaming up with the Christians and wanted to get the Greens in instead, but the Greens demanded too high a price. We’ll see what happens this time.

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  2. “He remained in that position until two months ago, when he and his cabinet resigned over a welfare payments scandal that was strongly reminiscent of the Robodebt affair in Australia, but with an element of accountability added.”

    I would say that is a lot more than “an element of accountability.” So far, there appears to be no accountability for scandal of Robodebt in Australia.

    Liked by 1 person

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