Though Dutch coalition suffers heavy losses, Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party fails to achieve breakthrough.
March 16, 2017
Though results are still coming in, it is clear that Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s centre right VVD party has achieved a comfortable lead in the Dutch parliamentary elections.
By contrast Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party, though it has significantly increased its share of the vote and has almost doubled its representation in the parliament, has done less well than opinion polls predicted, and may even have come third.
Rutte probably experienced an upsurge in his support as a result of the row between the Netherlands and Turkey, with Dutch voters rallying behind Rutte in the face of the challenge from Erdogan.
The Rutte-Erdogan row has always had something of a confected look about it, with both Rutte and Erdogan playing it up for all it was worth in order to impress their respective voters ahead of crucial votes in both their countries. Rutte no doubt feels it has paid him handsome electoral dividends.
Having said this, Wilders’s prospects in the Dutch elections look like they were overstated.
As my colleague Adam Garrie has pointed out, Wilders is no sort of right wing conservative nationalist, as he is often made out to be. Rather he is, as he says himself, a sort of liberal ultra radical who insists on Dutch minorities – and specifically Muslim minorities – being forced to accept what he calls the liberal values of Dutch society, which he says derive from Judaeo-Christian culture.
Much of Wilders’s political rhetoric looks like straight Islamophobia, spiced up with extreme ultra liberal free market economic policies. Though this is no doubt a potent message appealing to some, it is also a deeply polarising one, and it is not surprising that in a traditionally tolerant and inclusive social democratic society many Dutch voters reject it.
As for Wilders’s supposed anti-EU stance, it seems that his programme is more to limit the role of the EU than to have the Netherlands actually quit it, and in this historically pro-EU country located in Europe’s core, it is not surprising if Wilders’s views on the EU anyway have only limited traction.
In any event the key point about Wilders is that even if his party had polled as strongly as the opinion polls were suggesting, so that he had come first in the election, he would still not have been able to form a government. This is because as a result of the strict proportional representation system which exists in the Netherlands he would still have fallen far short of a majority, and no other party is prepared to go into coalition with him.
What that means in practice is that even if Wilders had come first in the election the Netherlands would almost certainly have ended up with a conservative led coalition government very much like the one it had before the election, and the one it is likely to have now.
In some respects this is the true message of the election.
Though Wilders has failed to achieve the breakthrough that some had predicted, he has nonetheless significantly gained in support, and it appears that he will fall only just short of doubling his party’s representation in the parliament. By contrast the ruling coalition has significantly lost support, whilst the junior coalition partner – the formerly social democratic Dutch Labour Party, which was the Netherlands’ dominant party in the 1950s – has been all but annihilated. The main winners – apart from Wilders – have been various parties that seek to position themselves at various points on the left.
In other words though the election has been marked by a significant swing against the government, which in some countries would cause it to be replaced by a new and different government, the oddities of the Dutch electoral system mean that in the Netherlands what is essentially the same government led by the same Prime Minister will remain in office. Indeed short of a total revolution in Dutch politics, it is difficult to see how any other outcome would be possible from any conceivable Dutch election held under present conditions.
In the nineteenth century the Italians coined a term – transformismo – to describe a political system in which a centrist liberal elite had achieved such a stranglehold of the electoral system that its hold could not be broken through conventional political means regardless of whatever shifts in popular opinion might occur. Transformismo in Italy, though it gave the country a long period of stable and in some ways successful government, is also widely believed to have brought corruption and cynicism in its wake, ultimately discrediting the political system and paving the way for Mussolini.
Though the Netherlands is a very different society from nineteenth century Italy, its political system also seems to have become a form of transformismo. It remains to be seen whether the Dutch variant will be more successful than the Italian one was.