Netherlands: Deckchairs quietly shuffled in EU poll fizzer

Socialist Party protests against European free trade treaty.

For more coverage of the 2014 European elections, click HERE.

By Will Wroth, Rotterdam

June 5, 2014 -- Rabid anti-foreigner populist Geert Wilders was expected to wipe the floor on the right; the “equally anti-EU” (according to the media image) Socialist Party (SP) would garner a protest vote large enough to put the pro-Brussels traditional left on the back foot; voter turnout would hit an historic low, itself a measure of public anger, disillusionment or disinterest. That was the consensus media guess as to likely Dutch results in the May 25 European election.

The reality was, actually, none of the above. The 37% turnout was normal. Wilders’ Party of Freedom (PVV) managed only to hold on to its four of the 26 Dutch seats in the European Parliament. The SP increased its vote from 7% to 9.5%, slightly less than widely expected, but gained no extra seat. The net result within the established parties was that one seat “moved” from the increasingly mainstream (largely pro-Brussels) Green Left (GL), to the increasingly neoliberal (very pro-Brussels) Democrats ’66 (D66).

That’s insignificant within the current political climate and landscape. Green Left has been regularly shooting itself in the foot since its disastrous miscalculation on support for Dutch military presence in Afghanistan’s Kunduz province. A combination of internal chaos, an embarrassing media image and further de-radicalisation of this once genuinely left coalition—only a few days ago they joined forces with the government to replace the tertiary fees funding system with a deeply unpopular loan system—has left it reeling electorally. Falling from three to two seats was good damage control.

D66 has also been moving rapidly to the right on economic issues, and is being openly promoted as the new, more acceptable face of neoliberalism were the current ruling right-wing coalition partner, Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), to fall too far from grace—under electoral pressure from Wilders on one side, and the mildly resurgent secular andconfessional middle ground on the other.

No, the only two interesting features of this result seem marginal, but are actually much more significant behind the scenes than they may appear.

Left gains

The first is that the Netherlands’ one extra seat in the European Parliament (five years ago they elected 25) was won—narrowly—by the Party for the Animals. The first expressly animal-rights and environmental representative in Brussels is a healthy breach of establishment politics in itself, of course, but this innovative party maintains a consistently radical set of policies on issues far beyond the environment and animal welfare, and has reliably voted progressively in parliament, where it has two of the 150 seats. It is a party firmly on the left, although it may not style itself so, and is set to continue to win further ground and play a small but colourful part within genuinely left politics in the country.

The second is that for the first time, the Socialist Party (despite a lacklustre, unimaginative campaign with a largely negative loading) won more votes in a country-wide poll than the traditional social-democratic Labour Party (PvdA): 9.6% to 9.4%. A marginal difference, but it may prove psychologically damaging for the PvdA, as it continues to alienate itself further from its traditional support base by first defending, then adopting, and now (as partner in government) blithely imposing the VVD’s austerity program.

Of course, this program is demanded by the European Commission in Brussels, but the VVD is only too eager to implement it anyway, even as it awkwardly distances itself from the extreme federalists within its European Parliament fraction, such as its leader and former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt).

The Dutch electoral system, which enables parties to link their electoral lists to mop up percentages left over after seat quotas are exhausted, meant that Green Left donated its left-over votes to the PvdA, leaving the latter with three seats to the SP’s two, despite the social democrats’ slightly lower percentage.

The statistical fact that the PvdA can no longer be assured of its place as largest on the left (insofar as it still belongs there!) opens the door even further to the SP and others: an historic, though small, breakthrough, but yet to be proven in a really important election. In the wake of the country-wide May local council elections, where the PvdA generally performed disastrously, and the SP generally excellently, this result may yet prove to be another step on the road to a very different balance of political forces in the Netherlands.

The question post-EU election is not which of the establishment parties temporarily enjoys the best-placed deckchairs on the SS Brussels, but whether or not the Dutch left can move beyond social democracy where it really counts: not so much in Europe, but locally and, crucially, in The Hague.

[Will Wroth is a member of the Rotterdam branch of the Socialist Party. The Socialist Party’s program for the European election can be found at]