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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’ loyalty to establishment parties declined sharply, and protest votes increased. In the Netherlands, however, populist parties captured only part of the protest vote, which was fragmented by a range of medium-sized and small parties. What is more, few Dutch voters chose to exit the electoral process—voter turnout was the highest in two decades. And as elsewhere, populism will remain at the center of the Netherlands’ politics unless establishment parties address their constituents’ concerns in areas beyond the issues of immigration and security.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte campaigning in The Hague, March 2017.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte campaigning in The Hague, March 2017.

THE ESTABLISHMENT’S DECLINE AND THE SOCIAL DEMOCRATS’ IMPLOSION

In the first few decades of the postwar period, many European countries were ruled by two big parties: a center-right conservative or Christian democratic party and a center-left social democratic party. These centrist parties often alternated in power, sometimes with the support of a smaller party. From Austria to the United Kingdom, they tended to gain the vast majority of their citizens’ votes—sometimes up to 90 percent.

Few such dominant centrist parties remain today. Even in Germany, the Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Party together poll at only around two-thirds of the vote. The Dutch party system has always been somewhat fragmented, but in the Netherlands, too, a similar trend has held. In 1986, the country’s three leading parties–the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), the Labor Party (PvdA), and the VVD–secured 85 percent of the vote. This year, they won a mere 39 percent.

Few dominant centrist parties remain today.

The decline of the Netherlands’ establishment parties is primarily the result of the implosion of the country’s social democrats—a collapse that has taken place across the continent, in groups from the British Labour Party to the Greek Panhellenic Socialist Movement. That process started in the 1990s, when, faced with declining working classes, most social democratic parties chose to embrace pro-market positions, leaving some of their former constituents to back right- or left-wing populist parties instead. For its part, the Dutch PvdA has been struggling for years to satisfy its shrinking but increasingly heterogeneous base, which includes both Muslim and Islamophobic workers. The party’s most recent peak came in 1986, when it received around one-third of the vote. After years of decline, the PvdA bounced back to nearly 25 percent in the elections of 2012, bringing it into government with the VVD. But the PvdA has now paid the price for so eagerly joining the second Rutte government, which voters regarded as a mostly right-wing project, devoid of significant social democratic features. In last month’s election, the PvdA’s vote share fell by over 19 percentage points, to 5.7 percent, granting the party just nine seats in the parliament’s lower house. It was the biggest electoral defeat in Dutch history—so big that one of the PvdA’s leading members, the outgoing Minister of the Interior Ronald Plaskerk, suggested that the PvdA merge with the GreenLeft party, which took 14 seats but has never before governed in a ruling coalition, rather than constitute its own parliamentary faction. This seems short-sighted, as the PvdA still seems to have the loyalty of older, not highly educated voters in the north of the country—and that is not exactly the core electorate of GreenLeft, whose supporters tend to be young, highly educated, and urban.

At a factory in Veldhoven, the Netherlands, January 2013.

At a factory in Veldhoven, the Netherlands, January 2013.

VOX POPULI

Most foreign observers framed the Dutch elections as a struggle between emboldened populists and an embattled establishment. It is true that, for some time, the VVD and the PVV were neck and neck in the polls. But it is important to recall that populism has been a constant feature of Dutch politics since at least the beginning of the twenty-first century. In the elections of 2002, for example, the right-wing populist List Pim Fortuyn won 17 percent of the vote, taking 26 seats in what was the biggest win by any new party in the postwar era. What is more, support for populist parties has not grown linearly. The PVV, which took 13 percent of the vote last month, received slightly less (10.1 percent) in 2012 and slightly more (15.5 percent) in 2010. In other words, the PVV not only performed far worse than some polls suggested it would—it also did worse than in the last general election.

It is also important to note that protest votes are a product not only of what populists do but also of what other parties offer. The PVV has certainly been undermined by the CDA’s and the VVD’s moves to the right: the latter two parties made the defense of what they describe as Christian and Dutch institutions and values against the alleged threat posed by Muslims and their naïve secular helpers central to their campaigns. But Dutch voters can choose from 25 other parties, as well, and populist radical-right groups are not the only ones that can give citizens a voice against the status quo. For a while, the radical left Socialist Party filled such a role, but in recent years its platform has become significantly less populist—it now mainly targets right-wing parties rather than all establishment ones—which may explain the party’s inability to attract dissatisfied less educated voters. At the same time, some smaller, non-populist antiestablishment parties have emerged, such as the animal-rights Party for the Animals and the pro-immigrant DENK party, which took 3.2 and two percent of the vote, respectively, in this year’s elections. What is more, although GreenLeft has been around for decades, since it has never served in government, the support it drew should also be viewed as a kind of protest vote. In short, the Netherlands is home to many protest voices—not just right-wing populist ones. And although the situation is not unique to the Netherlands—for instance, in Spain the new center-right Citizens party has done well, and in Greece the pro-European The River has been a fairly successful newcomer—the Dutch situation stands out for the level of its fragmentation, with almost all established and challenger parties receiving well under fifteen percent of the vote.

NO EXIT?

As for who has exited electoral politics, the Netherlands has always had high voter turnout levels relative to the rest of Europe, at least in parliamentary elections. Since the country abolished compulsory voting in 1970, between 74 and 87 percent of eligible voters have participated in parliamentary elections. This year, just under 81 percent did. Turnout increased among all age groups relative to 2012, except for voters between the ages of 18 and 24, for whom participation rates dropped from 77 to 67 percent. Almost three times as many young people thus chose not to vote as voted for the party that performed best among their peers—the GreenLeft party, which took 12 percent of the youth vote. And whereas 95 percent of highly educated voters over the age of 55 voted, only 48 percent of less educated voters between 18 and 34 did, according to Ipsos, a research group. Because the parties that are mostly likely to form a government have either a relatively old or a highly educated electorate, it is possible that less educated young voters will be further marginalized in the years ahead. Although there are various reasons for the low participation among Dutch youth, the election campaign, which was dominated by issues such as immigration and terrorism, did more to appeal to the fears of the old than the tolerance of the young. 

The Netherlands is home to many protest voices—not just right-wing populist ones.

The other form of exit that the recent election demonstrated was the continuing decline in the number of female members of parliament. The Netherlands is widely seen as an emancipated and tolerant country, and for good reason. Despite the dominance of Islamophobia in public discourse, Dutch people are still among the most tolerant in the world in terms of their support for gay rights and gender rights, for example. Yet Dutch politics remain an extremely male-dominated affair. The Netherlands has never had a female prime minister, nor have its three established parties ever had a female leader. Even the progressive Democrats 66 party—a relative newcomer in the political establishment—has only once been led by a woman, for the 1998 elections. Indeed, of all the medium-sized parties, only GreenLeft holds a decent track record in this respect, having had a female-male joint leadership for the 1994 elections and a female head, Femke Halsema, for the 2003, 2006, and 2010 elections.

It should therefore be no surprise that only four of the 28 parties that contested the 2017 parliamentary elections had a female leader. Only 35 percent of the 1,114 candidates who participated in the election were female, and only 36 percent of the 150 members of the new parliament are women—a small drop from 2012 and a bigger one from 2010. Those figures put the Netherlands above the EU and OECD average, which is 28 percent, and on par with many other northern European countries. Still, the low representation of female politicians could negatively affect legislation, particularly when it comes to so-called women’s issues, and the low visibility of female politicians could discourage young women from becoming politically active. The dearth of women in politics also weakens the country’s credibility as a global force for women's rights—a role to which consecutive governments have aspired.

Michael Kooren / REUTERS Members of the Dutch parliament during a meeting in The Hague, March 2017.

STUCK IN THE MIDDLE WITH YOU

The Netherlands has neither defeated nor succumbed to populism. Right-wing populism remains a medium-sized feature of the country’s politics, one that influences public debate but is still excluded from government. In this sense, the Netherlands’ situation is somewhere between that of France, where the populist radical-right National Front is challenging mainstream parties for the presidency, and that of Germany, where the Alternative for Germany is a small annoyance in a political system still dominated by two relatively big parties. In the Netherlands, as elsewhere, national elections are first and foremost domestic affairs, affected only marginally by global or regional trends.

The challenge for the next Dutch government will be to find a way not just to exclude the populist radical right from power but also to weaken its base. As all the main parties have explicitly said they would not govern with the PVV, the next government will probably be a coalition of the CDA, D66, GreenLeft, and VVD. All of those parties support the basic features of the previous status quo—most notably, European integration, liberal democracy, and a multicultural society—but they have responded very differently to the challenge that the populist radical right poses to them. Whereas D66 and GreenLeft have doubled down on their support for integration, the CDA and VVD have adopted more authoritarian and nativist positions, more regularly giving voice to what might be desscribed as soft euroskepticism and Islamophobia. If the four parties can’t find a positively defined compromise, the new government will be perceived mostly as an anti-Wilders coalition, which would keep the PVV and its issues central to Dutch politics.

If the new coalition is able to come together on a positive agenda, that could change. By emphasizing some of the major concerns of the Dutch population that have been pushed to the sidelines by the so-called three Is (immigration, integration, and Islam), the coalition could not just weaken the electoral base of the PVV but also re-energize women and young people, who care more about issues such as education, employment, health care, and the future of the welfare state. All of those concerns relate to the overarching issues of European and ethnocultural integration, and none of them should be reduced to problems of identity and security.

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