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Europe's Furies

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Francois Lenoir / REUTERS Ducks in Volendam, February 2017.
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The Future of Dutch Democracy

What the Election Revealed About the Establishment—and Its Challengers

It must be quiet now in Volendam, a small Dutch fishing town around ten miles northeast of Amsterdam. To most Dutch people, Volendam is an anomaly, a deeply religious place where older residents still wear traditional costumes. To the foreign journalists who descended on Volendam in the weeks before the Netherlands’ March 15 parliamentary elections, it represented something else: the Dutch heartland, where disaffected voters were flocking to support Geert Wilders, the leader of the radical-right Party for Freedom (PVV), the Netherlands’ most famous politician, and, most important in this story, the Dutch embodiment of the global populist surge that contributed to the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president. No matter that Wilders’ party never stood a chance of receiving more than a quarter of the vote, thanks in part to the Netherlands’ proportional electoral system and its proliferation of political parties: the Dutch elections were to be the bellwether of the West’s political future—the “year’s first test for Europe’s populists,” as The Economist put it.

In the end, the PVV lost royally to Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), which took 21 percent of the vote—one and a half times as much as the PVV’s 13 percent. One way to understand that outcome is through a framework developed by the late German-American economist Albert Hirschman. Hirschman used the terms “exit,” “voice,” and “loyalty” to describe how the members of firms, organizations, and states behave when confronted with problems: they can choose to withdraw from a troubled group, voice their concerns, or stick around. These three kinds of actions have clear analogues in electoral politics. Exit corresponds to nonvoting, voice to voting for protest parties, such as the PVV, and loyalty to continued support for establishment parties. Viewed through this lens, the Dutch elections confirmed some broader trends in the West but also demonstrated a number of exceptions. As in other European countries, voters’

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