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How The Dutch Elections Came To Suddenly Interest Everyone

16/03/2017 16:04
Bloomberg via Getty Images

As the dust settles over the Dutch parliamentary elections, the international press corps are packing their bags with one last stiff drink to cover their disappointment as they head out to Schiphol Airport, hoping that France or Germany may deliver something more exciting.

At the end, Geert Wilders's PVV only came second and will not even try to form a government. There was no "populist insurgency", which pundits seemed to be pinning their hopes on. The "Dutch Trump" will not rule over this flat European state, which most political observers had rarely even thought of before these elections. Just as well, even if Wilders had come out on top, he would not have ruled over anything more than a one-man party and his Twitter account.

During the campaign, it seemed as if two parallel election cycles were taking place. The one was a two-horse "presidential" race in the international media between the incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Geert Wilders. The other, which had the advantage of actually happening, involved a myriad of parties fighting one another in a country with one of the lowest thresholds in the world. This became the real story, as the Dutch voters delivered a fragmented parliament with many smaller parties that will need to form a complex coalition.

It is understandable why so many international observers did not go beyond Geert Wilders's bleached haircut. To audiences unaware of the Dutch local issues, these elections were only interesting within a set narrative: a continuation of an overarching populist wave that began with Brexit, continued with Trump and then goes on to devastate mainland Europe. Moreover, with his Tweets, inflammatory language and emulation of Trumpisms like "making the Netherlands great again", Wilders embraced the story and went along with being the "Dutch Trump".

And yet, Dutch media and the voters were aware of this image of the Netherlands. Mark Rutte played into it as he disingenuously claimed that his VVD was the only power able to stop Wilders. This strategy proved to be successful. It may have been one of the factors that contributed to the decision of many undecided voters to cast their vote in favour of the incumbent and keep the VVD the largest party in parliament with 33 seats.

At the same time, the real stories of these elections are fragmentation and the demise of Dutch Labour. From a party system dominated by two main forces - the conservative VVD and the Labour party - the Dutch Second Chamber emerged as a multi-party house sustained by small vote shares. The VVD dropped from 26.5% to around 21% of the vote. Geert Wilders's PVV improved to 13% and the next parties in line, the CDA and D66, each received around 12%. The biggest success of the evening, GroenLinks - or GreenLeft - quadrupled its vote share from 2.3% to 9%, while PvdA, or Labour, dropped from 28 seats with 25% of the vote to 9 seats with less than 6% of the vote. Despite the big victory parties at the VVD and GL headquarters, no political party received a strong mandate to actually implement a coherent programme.

The reasons for this proliferation of parties could - and should - be taken seriously by international observers, as they reflect undercurrents that exist elsewhere. These elections did not show large-scale apathy or lack of interest in politics, but rather a sense of confusion and insecurity. The day before the elections, 42% of Dutch respondents still claimed they were undecided. Yet on Election Day, 82% of the electorate came out to vote, an increase over the last elections in 2012. As they shifted their support away from traditional parties, these voters did not necessarily demonstrate distrust with parliamentary democracy per-se but a dissatisfaction with what the big parties had to offer. Many voted for parties other than the ruling VVD, PdvA or Wilders's PVV because they were tired of the relentless focus on Islam, immigration and integration, which had consumed Dutch politics in the last few years. Many voted for smaller parties in order to shift the debate to the themes voters often cited as the most important ones: social care, health and the future of the welfare state. Dutch Labour got the boot because they had failed to stand up for these issues in government.

So does this mean Wilders is insignificant? Not quite. These results, in which his PVV increased its vote share, were the best he could have hoped for. This way, he is not confronted with the expectations of forming a coalition with parties that had already ruled out cooperation with him. He can take up the mantle of the biggest opposition party and keep on being the same kind of provocateur.

More importantly, the PVV's biggest impact is how it has contributed to the shift of the Dutch discourse to the right. If one of the reasons the VVD prevailed was fear of Wilders, the other was its ability to attract Islamophobic votes after the spat with Turkey last weekend. Moreover, the biggest block in this new parliament is that of the centre-right, and the most probable coalitions will be ever more conservative ones, most probably the VVD together with the Christian CDA and the socially liberal yet fiscally conservative D66. As they would still lack a few seats for a majority in the Second Chamber, they will require a third party, most probably the socially conservative CU. In this scenario, Wilders can still portray himself as a true opposition from the right, while he watches as the Dutch public conversation increasingly accommodates his ideas.

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