The containment of Islamophobe Geert Wilders’ Party of Freedom (PVV) in the March 15 Dutch general election was greeted with relief by the mainstream European media.
The PVV’s final vote of only 13.1% (20 seats in the 150-seat lower house according to the Dutch system of perfectly proportional representation) represented a rise of only 3% (five seats). Given expectations it could have won the election, this was a setback.
The PVV, which advocates shutting all mosques (“hate palaces”), banning the Quran, closing Dutch borders and leaving the European Union (EU), had been leading in opinion polls since September 2015.
Its support reached high points of more than 40 seats — up to 20 more than the ruling conservative People’s Party of Freedom and Democracy (VVD). The PVV only started to poll behind the VVD in the last 10 days of campaigning.
By the same token, for the VVD, its losses — down 5.2% to 21.3% (losing eight seats to take 33 all up) — amounted to a win. It was enough to 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. The voter turnout rate jumped to 80.4% of the electorate — the highest in 30 years.
The high participation reflected how important the poll was felt to be domestically and for Europe, 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 a rise of 6.6% (10 seats). It was also reflected in greater support for the social-liberal Democrats 66 (D66), up by 4% (7 seats).
GreenLeft’s leader Jesse Klaver stood out in the election campaign with his 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. It will result in a more right-wing cabinet than the previous “red-blue” coalition of the VVD and Labour Party (PdvA).
Labour Party ‘PASOKised’
The biggest loser on March 15 was the PdvA. Its support fell by 77%, from 24.8% to just 5.7% (38 seats to nine). In the 2012 election, the PdvA was the lead party in more than 100 of the Netherlands’ 388 municipalities; in 2017, none.
The PdvA paid a 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. This came after the PdvA promised major social advances at the 2012 elections to defeat a challenge to its left from the Socialist Party (SP).
However, once in government the PdvA extended “business-friendly” policies so far that Dutch businesses now pay only 18% of the country’s total tax revenues — as against 23% for Belgium and 26% for the other main European tax haven, Luxembourg.
The red-blue coalition did 14,000 tax deals with multinational firms worth €5.5 billion. At the same time, it raised the retirement age and imposed social spending cuts at the behest of the European Commission.
The PvdA’s loyalty to the Dutch and European status quo was 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 PdvA had already slumped to sixth position. By December last year, its leader Diederick Samsom, victor over the SP in 2012, had lost a desperate leadership challenge aimed at salvaging the stricken party.
Initial analysis of where the PdvA’s lost 29 seats went reveals a wide dispersion: six went to GreenLeft, five to D66, four to the SP, two each to the PVV and VVD, 1.5 to the conservative Christian Democrat Appeal (CDA), five to other parties and five to abstention.
In short, 10 former PdvA 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). Anti-racist and environmentally-minded voters — who are 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 PdvA were offset by its loss of five — to GreenLeft, D66 and even to the CDA.
D66 and the CDA were the next biggest winners. The CDA picked up six seats while D66 made a net gain of seven.
The Dutch lower house is now more fragmented, with the most parties represented since 1933. In 2012, three parties (VVD, PdvA and PVV) accounted for 60% of the vote: after March 15 these parties represent barely 40%.
The minor parties that already had parliamentary presence — the Party of the Animals (PdvD) and the Over-50s party (+50) — have increased their presence while two new parties have won seats.
They are Denk (“think” in Dutch), a split from the PdvA that championed migrant rights and multiculturalism, and the eurosceptic Forum for Democracy (FVD), a right-libertarian outfit espousing higher military spending, tighter border controls, binding referenda and government by business people.
At the same time, the traditional confessional parties, the Catholic Christian Union (CU) and the Calvinist Reformed Political Party (SGP), maintain their minor presence. The CU is even a candidate for a spot in a VVD-CDA-D66-CU cabinet.
As a result of shifts, the broad left-centre-right seat balance in the lower house has gone from 59-14-77 to 42-31-77. The centre has gained at the expense of the (broadly conceived) left. Subtracting the PVV, put in quarantine by all major parties, leaves the balance at 42-31-57.
A positive for progressive politics is that the bloc of parties to left of the PdvA (GreenLeft-SP-PdvD) has grown from 21 seats to 33.
Finally, the seat balance between parties supporting the EU and the parties demanding “Nexit” or radical EU reform, has shifted from 118-32 to 109-41. This reflects a steady growth in Euro-scepticism in a core EU member state.
The PVV’s distant second place sparked a shower of enthusiastic tweets from EU leaders and wild talk about the “end of populism”.
However, despite the PVV’s setback, this election has shifted Dutch politics further to the right: the likely outcome is another VVD-led government, which secured its survival by stealing key planks of Wilders’ platform (“getting tougher” on migrants and refugees).
This choice between right and extreme right was dramatised in the March 13 televised debate between Rutte and Wilders.
The two clashed over Rutte’s handling of the “crisis” the PM had provoked by preventing Turkey’s foreign minister from entering Holland to address a meeting of Dutch people of Turkish origin.
Wilders insisted Rutte did not go nearly far enough, telling him: “You are being taken hostage by [Turkish President Tayyip Recep] Erdogan. Close the Dutch borders ... Expel the Turkish ambassador and his staff.”
Rutte played the statesman: “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 message aimed at Wilders’ constituency throughout the election campaign: no party will govern with him, so don’t waste your vote. The tactic seemed to bear fruit and could have been the main reason the PVV failed to overtake the VVD.
On the left, both the SP and GreenLeft supported greater social welfare and environmental spending. Their main difference was the SP’s proposal to hold a referendum on a new European treaty — a countermove to Wilders’ proposal for a “Nexit” referendum.
For its part, GreenLeft stood for “more Europe”, even supporting the issuance of European debt.
Despite this, the SP proved unable to capture much of the anti-PVV vote that went to GreenLeft, which scored highest among younger voters. The reasons may become clearer, but one factor would be the youthful, social media-savvy approach of Klaver, GreenLeft’s 30-year-old leader.
Klaver tackled Wilders’ Islamophobia head-on, criticising the concessions Rutte has made to him: “You are not just fighting Geert Wilders, you are fighting his ideas. When it comes to populism we can fight it better.”
The SP approach was less direct. In an election campaign dominated by Wilders’ hate-messages, the SP stressed, in the words of parliamentary spokesperson Sadet Karabulut, the need for “combining forces behind a social, inclusive politics”.
The March 15 result has 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 PdvD, as well as the apparently chronic 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 go away any time soon.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. Will Wroth is an SP member based in Rotterdam. A more detailed analysis of the Dutch election and Wroth’s analysis of the challenges facing the Dutch left will be published soon at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]