Dutch election: GreenLeft and Animal Rights gains the bright spots as Wilders stalls and mainstream right strengthens
By Dick Nichols and Will Wroth
March 21, 2017 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — The containment in the March 15 Dutch general election of islamophobe Geert Wilders’ Party of Freedom (PVV) was greeted with relief by the mainstream European media (see table for election results as of March 19; final results will be declared on March 22).
The PVV’s final vote of only 13.1% (20 seats in the 150-seat lower house according to the Dutch proportional representation system) represented an increase of only 3% (5 seats): given expectations this advance was really a sizeable setback.
The PVV, which advocates shutting all mosques (“hate palaces”), banning the Quran, closing Dutch borders and leaving the European Union (“Nexit”), had been leading in opinion polls since September 2015. Its support reached high points of over 40 seats–up to 20 more than the ruling conservative People’s Party of Freedom and Democracy (VVD). Wilder’s one-man party—himself--only started to poll consistently behind the VVD in the last ten days of the election campaign.
By the same token, the losses of the VVD, down 5.2% to 21.3% (33 seats) amounted to a win. Polling over the final week of the election campaign gave the VVD an average loss of 15 seats compared to its 2012 result, but its final result was a loss of eight. That result will allow outgoing prime minister Mark Rutte to again lead a coalition government.
The PVV’s gains were below expectations because Wilders’ frenzy of hate-mongering generated its own antibodies in the Dutch body politic. An anti-PVV mobilisation took place as the participation rate jumped to 80.4%: turnout was the highest in 30 years. The high participation also reflected how important the poll was felt to be domestically and in the European context, along with how open the field was--this was no two-horse race inviting tactical voting.
The mood showed in the results for those parties most antagonistic to the PVV’s message, led by GreenLeft with an increase of 6.6% (from 4 to 14 seats) but also present in increased support for the progressive Party of the Animals (PvdD) and the social-liberal Democrats 66 (D66), up by 4% (7 seats). GreenLeft’s leader Jesse Klaver stood out in the election campaign with support for a higher refugee intake and his message that the PVV—not Islam--was the biggest threat to “Dutch values”.
Nonetheless, the election result primarily reflected a conservative and safety-seeking consolidation of the right and centre parties. The final week of polling had GreenLeft averaging a 13-seat gain and the VVD a 15-seat loss together with Wilders’ PVV in a clear second place just four seats behind the VVD, four in front of D66 and two ahead of the conservative Christian Democrat Appeal (CDA).
The final result, most likely produced by a last-minute surge to the polling stations of more conservative voters, saw the VVD loss cut to eight and its gap over the PVV increased to 13, while less-than-predicted support for Wilders brought the CDA to within a seat of the PVV. At the same time GreenLeft’s predicted gains were cut back by three seats and D66’s by one. It was as if the election campaign had generated two waves: an initial progressive surge against the PVV followed by an offsetting mainstream conservative tide favouring the VVD and CDA at the expense of the “extremes”.
The overall outcome will be a more right-wing cabinet than the previous “red-blue” coalition of the VVD and Labour Party (PvdA).
Labour Party ‘PASOKised’
The biggest loser on March 15 was the PvdA. Its support fell by 77%, from 24.8% to 5.7% (38 seats to 9). In the 2012 election the PvdA was lead party in over 100 of the Netherlands’ 388 municipalities: in 2017, in none.
The PvdA paid this huge price for its role in an administration notorious for spoiling the Dutch finance sector rotten and entrenching the Netherlands as the EU’s biggest tax haven--and this after Labour had promised major social advances at the 2012 elections in order to defeat the challenge from the Socialist Party (SP) to its left.
However, once in government the PvdA extended “business-friendly” policies so far that Dutch business is now paying only 18% of the country’s total tax take, as against 23% for Belgium and 26% for the other main European tax haven, Luxembourg. The red-blue coalition did 14,000 tax deals worth €5.5 billion with multinational firms--even as it increased the retirement age and inflicted cuts in social spending at the behest of the European Commission.
The PvdA’s loyalty to the Dutch and European status quo was best typified by the attack-dog performance of finance minister Jeroen Djisselbloem as head of the Eurogroup (of Eurozone finance ministers) in its 2015 financial war on the Greek SYRIZA government.
In the May 2015 upper house elections the party had already slumped to sixth. By December last year, its leader Diederik Samsom, victor over the SP in 2012, had vanished from Dutch politics after losing a desperate leadership challenge aimed at refloating the already beached party. The PvdA finds itself in a deep existential crisis: what role can it possibly play with its “natural” constituency so splintered, finding new homes in a spectrum of new and existing parties? One of its most clumsy ex-ministers, Ronald Plasterk, went so far as to suggest that the PvdA and GreenLeft actually fuse. That social-democracy is now by a long way the weakest on the broadly-conceived traditional “left”, is a political shift of generational proportions.
Initial analysis of where the PvdA’s lost 29 seats went, shown on the website of Dutch public broadcaster NOS, reveals a wide dispersion: 6.5 seats to GreenLeft, 5 to D66, 4 to the SP, 2 each to the PVV and VVD, 1.5 to the CDA, 5 to other parties and 5 to abstention. In short, 10.5 former PvdA seats have definitely gone to the left, 5 to the centre and 5.5 to the right.
GreenLeft’s overall gain of 10 was the greatest (twice as much as the PVV’s), as anti-racist and environmentally minded voters—also still committed to some European vision if not to the present EU--swung to it. GreenLeft also won seats from the SP and D66. By contrast, the SP’s gains of four seats from the PvdA were more than offset by its loss of five, to GreenLeft, D66 and even to the CDA).
These last two parties were the next biggest winners. The CDA picked up its six-seat gain from the VVD (2.5), PvdA (1.5), SP (1) and D66 (1). After subtracting this last loss to the CDA, D66’s net gain of seven came from the PvdA (5), VVD (2) and SP (1).
The Dutch lower house is now even more fragmented, with more parties than since 1933 (13 in all). In 2012, three parties (VVD, PvdA and PVV) accounted for 60% of the vote: after March 15 these parties represent just over 40% and the combined vote of the first five parties is needed to reach 60%.
The minor parties already with parliamentary seats—the PvdD and the Over-50s party (+50)—have increased their presence while two new parties have entered at this election. They are Denk (“think” in Dutch, “balanced” in Turkish), a split from the PvdA championing migrant rights and multiculturalism and the eurosceptic Forum for Democracy (FVD), a right-libertarian outfit espousing increased military spending, tighter border controls, binding referenda and government by business people.
Denk, which has a quietly supportive line towards Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, would have been the main “other party” responsible for the PvdA’s disaster while the FVD would have created a support base for itself among xenophobic voters put off by Wilders’ most extreme formulations (like “Moroccan scum”). Thierry Baudet, FVD’s leader, made a name for himself by garnering support to force a referendum on the EU’s Ukraine treaty, and their platform is based around upsetting the existing “party cartel”, and calling for more “direct” democracy, including more frequent referenda.
At the same time, the traditional confessional parties, the Christian Union (CU) and the Calvinist Reformed Political Party (SGP), will maintain their minor presence, although the CU is widely seen as the most likely candidate for a spot in a VVD-CDA-D66-CU cabinet.
As a result of these shifts, the broad right-centre-left seat balance in the Dutch lower house has gone from 77-14 -59 to 77-31-42, reflecting a strengthening of the centre at the expense of the (broadly conceived) left. Subtracting the PVV, put into quarantine by all major parties, leaves the balance at 57-31-42. However, a positive outcome for progressive politics is that the bloc of parties to left of the PvdA (GreenLeft-SP-PdvD) has increased from 21 seats to 33.
Finally, the seat balance between parties supporting the EU and the parties demanding either Nexit or radical EU reform, has shifted from 118-32 to 109-41, not a huge change but reflecting a steady growth in Euro-scepticism in a core EU member state.
Right and far right
The PVV’s distant second place on March 15 sparked a shower of enthusiastic tweets from EU leaders and wild and wishful talk about the “end of populism”. European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker wrote to Rutte in these ecstatic terms: “The people of the Netherlands have voted overwhelmingly for the values that Europe represents: freedom and tolerant societies in a prosperous Europe.”
However, the VVD victory provides little real relief because this election has shifted Dutch politics further to the right: the likely outcome is another VVD-led government that has “beaten” Wilders by stealing planks from his platform (“getting tougher” on migrants and refugees). The CDA’s increased vote was also partially due to the same sort of respectable racism.
Some commentators have consoled themselves with the thought that the PVV’s 20 seats represents a lower high-tide mark for hate-mongering parties than the Pim Fortuyn List’s 26 seats in 2002 or Wilders’ own 24 seats won in 2010. This is beside the point: while xenophobic and Islamophobic views have a grip on up to 1.5 million people (in the Dutch case) “respectable right” governments are freer to implement pro-austerity, anti-democratic and inhuman policies, transforming political discussion into heated debates about who is best at handling “The Threat”.
As Dutch commentator Rutger Bregman remarked in the March 17 Guardian:
[L]et’s be honest, rightwing, anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders is this election’s real winner. We seem to be forgetting that his party gained five additional seats in the Dutch parliament. And more importantly: over the past 10 years, Wilders has wrenched most of the other parties toward his position on the fringes – particularly the fiscally conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the culturally conservative Christian Democratic party (CDA), both mainstream parties with widespread support.
Suppose a denizen of the 1980s had stepped into a time machine and travelled to watch the run-up to these Dutch elections. Imagine how surprised – or, more accurately, dismayed – they would be. So-called progressive and moderate politicians are currently making pronouncements that would have put them behind bars for inciting hate 30 years ago.
This choice between right and extreme right was dramatised in the March 13 TV debate between Rutte and Wilders. They clashed over Rutte’s handling of the “crisis” he had chosen to provoke by preventing the Turkish foreign minister from entering Holland to address a meeting of Dutch people of Turkish origin: the idea was to win their support for the authoritarian Erdogan government’s referendum to change the Turkish constitution to its own advantage. Wilders told Rutte: “You are being taken hostage by Erdogan. Close the Dutch borders...Expel the Turkish ambassador and his staff.”
Rutte played the statesman in return: “There’s a difference between tweeting from the sofa and running a country. If you are in charge of a country you need to take sensible measures…” This was the VVD (and increasingly CDA) message aimed at Wilders’ constituency throughout the election campaign: no party will govern with him, so don’t waste your vote. The tactic bore fruit and could have been the main reason the PVV failed to overtake the VVD.
The other issue of dispute was Dutch membership of the European Union (EU), about which Wilders promised to hold a referendum on Nexit. Rutte retorted with his own scare tactic: “You want the Netherlands out of Europe. You know what it will cost...don’t do it.”
GreenLeft and SP
On the left, both the SP and GreenLeft supported greater social welfare and environmental spending. GreenLeft’s election manifesto asked for “more from the large multinationals, banks and people with large investment portfolios”; proposed a four-year deadline for closing all coal-fired plants as well as an end to subsidies to fossil fuels; more offshore wind farms; and a 15-year target for the elimination of natural gas in heating.
GreenLeft also undertook to reduce class sizes; hire 20,000 new teachers, and halve tuition fees and increase scholarships for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. On health, the green party promised to reduce market competition in healthcare, lower premiums and hire 30,000 additional nurses.
Against the growing social divides it promised tougher sentences for hate crimes, “teaching asylum seekers Dutch and educating them about the Dutch constitution from day one” and hiring a thousand additional police officers “to work on safe neighbourhoods”.
The SP’s 10-point platform (“Seize Power”) had a lot in common with GreenLeft’s, promising a 10% increase in the minimum wage and social welfare payments; and end to the Netherlands’ tax haven status and a “millionaires’ tax”; affordable housing; better-resourced education with a 23-pupil per class target; neighbourhood policing and increased legal aid and sustainable energy.
Their main programmatic differences were the SP’s proposal to hold a referendum on a new European treaty (a countermove to Wilders’ proposal for a Nexit referendum), and GreenLeft’s more far-reaching vision of environmental and climate issues. For its part, GreenLeft stood for “more Europe”, even supporting the issuance of European debt.
And yet, the SP proved unable to capture much of the anti-PVV vote that went to GreenLeft (which scored highest of all parties among younger and first-time voters and women). The reasons will become clearer in post-election analysis, but one factor would have been the youthful, social-media savvy approach of GreenLeft’s 30-year-old leader Klaver, coupled with a modern, dynamic, Bernie Sanders-like campaign.
Klaver also tackled Wilders’ Islamophobia head-on, criticising in a March 9 interview with the Financial Times the concessions that Rutte has made to the Islamophobe: “You are not just fighting Geert Wilders, you are fighting his ideas. When it comes to populism we can fight it better.” He said in another interview: “What I would say to all my left-wing friends in Europe: don’t try to fake the populace. Stand for your principles. Be straight. Be pro-refugee. Be pro-Europe …We can stop populism.”
The SP approach was less direct. In an election campaign dominated by Wilders’ hate-messages the SP stressed, in the words of parliamentary spokeswoman on social affairs and integration Sadet Karabulut, the need for “combining forces behind a social, inclusive politics”.
The GreenLeft campaign generated electricity: it held a 5000-strong rally in Amsterdam, the biggest of the election campaign, and came in first in the Dutch capital with 19.7%. For its part, the SP came first in nine municipalities along the Dutch-German border, working-class areas where the PvdA had won in 2012. The highest vote for the SP in these regions was 27.5% in Boxmeer municipality (the hometown of leader Emile Roemer).
The possibility of the PVV winning on March 15 was the major concern of the Dutch establishment and the European powers-that-be, but it is not their only headache. The chance of a PVV win was itself part of a broader trend—towards the effective end of a Dutch party-political system controlled since 1918 by a trio of political currents: Christian-confessional, self-styled liberal (actually conservative) and social democrat. A handful of government crises aside, one or other of these forces--since 1977 the VVD, CDA and PvdA—has acted as big brother in governing coalitions with minor partners. At times, they have also formed coalitions among themselves.
Their hegemony to date has reconciled Dutch elites to the country’s very democratic electoral system of pure proportional representation with no threshold, such that to win one seat in the 150-seat lower house a party need only score 0.67% of the vote. The system generates many parties, 11 with seats in the outgoing lower house and 28 as candidate-lists on March 15.
However, the predominance of these central establishment forces has been waning further since the 2010 election, when the then-governing CDA lost half its seats and the VVD could only form government with the external non-cabinet support of the PVV. The 2012 election, brought on when Wilders withdrew this support, then led to the formation of the VVD-PvdA “red-blue coalition”: this was an echo of the “purple” coalitions of the late 1990s that led to the shake-up of the electoral system with the eruption of the xenophobic Pim Fortuyn List in 2002.
Two political cycles later—with another red-blue grand coalition grudgingly experienced and now violently rejected by PvdA voters—the pattern of Dutch politics is roughly repeating the experience of 2002 and 2010: the critical difference this time is the possibly terminal decline of Labour. The March 15 result has therefore thrown up big challenges for progressive politics in the Netherlands. It must now work out how to confront the existence-threatening collapse in support for the PvdA, the rise of ecological, climate-aware, genuinely progressive and fresh-feeling channels in GreenLeft and the PvdD as well as the apparent stagnation of the SP.
And it will have to tackle those challenges in the face of a new pro-austerity government and a racist opposition that won’t be going away any time soon.
Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. SP member Will Wroth is based in Rotterdam. His analysis of the challenges facing the Dutch left after March 15 will soon appear on this web site. An initial version of this article has appeared on the Green Left Weekly web site.