That the right-wing won the recent Dutch elections was no surprise. What was surprising was how decisive the vote share of the far-right was in the overall victory. For Geert Wilders, the leader of the far-right Freedom Party (PVV), years of patience paid off while the incumbent right-wing party gambled and lost.
With 37 out of 150 parliamentary seats, the PVV is now well ahead of the joint social-democratic and Green ticket that won 25 seats. The total number of seats for left-wing parties remained constant, while the parties that were part of the centre-right government all lost seats, sometimes heavily.
The right has recomposed and radicalised, while the left was unable to advance from its previous weak position.
In July this year, prime minister Mark Rutte of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) — the main party in the previous government — provoked a crisis in the incumbent government by insisting on new restrictions on refugee rights. Rutte deliberately crossed a red line with one of the VVD’s coalition partners, thereby triggering the collapse of his own government and new elections.
The VVD hoped that by tacking further to the right on this issue, it would be able to cohere sufficient support to once again become the largest party in the country. Rutte stepped aside for a new party leader, Dilan Yeşilgöz.
Yeşilgöz, minister of justice in the most recent cabinet, proceeded to sharpen the right-wing profile of the VVD, especially through exaggerated stories about the supposed ease with which migrants can enter the Netherlands.
The gamble of the VVD was that the elections would play out as a polarisation between them and the centre-left on the issue of migration, and Yeşilgöz was presented as Rutte’s successor. This electoral tactic seemed to make sense: Rutte has been prime minister since 2010, and maintained his popularity throughout.
By focusing the electoral contest on migration, the VVD hoped to avoid issues on which it is vulnerable, such as the country’s housing crisis and the increasing cost of living. The VVD however ended up losing 10 seats, winning only 24 seats.
The far-right advance
Paradoxically, the VVD’s tactic worked too well. The emphasis on a supposed “refugee crisis” and restriction of migration benefited Wilders’ PVV — a party that since its foundation in 2006 has had anti-migrant politics at its core.
Not all credit for Wilders’ victory can go to the VVD, however. A journalistic trope in the last weeks was that Wilders had “moderated” his views, but the PVV program remained as radically anti-migrant as ever.
The party wants to completely close the borders for asylum-seekers and wants “no Islamic schools, Qurans or mosques” in the Netherlands. Such racist policies are combined with repressive rhetoric about “zero tolerance for street scum”, including the deployment of the army, denaturalising and deporting criminals with a double nationality and preventive arrests of those deemed to be sympathising with “jihadism”.
Wilders has not changed, what changed is the dynamic between the right and the far right. Rutte chose an approach of side-lining Wilders, his main competition on the right, by dismissing the PVV’s positions as “unrealistic” and presenting his VVD as the party that could implement right-wing policies more efficiently.
This approach increasingly normalised the PVV’s positions. Rather than attempting to position himself as a junior partner for the VVD, Wilders insisted on his posture as the right-wing opposition to Rutte and kept hammering away at his core issues.
Wilders harvested the fruit of this longterm approach on November 22.
The crisis within the far-right party Forum for Democracy (FvD), which had achieved significant success a few years ago, also benefited Wilders. This crisis was largely brought on by the megalomania of FvD leader Thierry Baudet.
Wilders is a seasoned politician, one of the longest-serving members of the Dutch parliament and able to look beyond the next electoral cycle. He began his career in the VVD in the late 1990s, splitting from them to form the PVV in 2006.
Initially, the PVV combined its racism and anti-migrant politics with a radical pro-market discourse, a radicalised version of the VVD’s neoliberalism. In the past decade or so, the PVV however shifted its rhetoric to a kind of “welfare chauvinism”, presenting itself as the protector of ordinary people and of the remains of the Dutch welfare system.
For the PVV, the ultimate cause of the roll-back of the welfare state is the presence of parasitic migrant communities, especially Muslims, in Dutch society and the wastage of money on “left-wing hobbies” such as measures to mitigate climate change. This money, the PVV suggests, would have been sufficient to protect the living standards of the “real” Dutch people.
The PVV’s electoral platform also presented “progressive” proposals such as abolishing consumption tax on daily necessities, lowering healthcare costs and returning the retirement age from 67 to 65.
Such ideas are undoubtedly popular but are secondary to the PVV’s core agenda. For Wilders, they are the only means to achieving his end; closing the borders and attacking the rights of minorities, especially those of Muslims.
Between 2010 and 2012, the first government led by Rutte was supported by the PVV who, in the words of Wilders, “accepted austerity measures in return for limits on immigration”.
In parliament, the PVV proposed a bill that would undercut collective bargaining agreements, voted to further restrict access to social security and opposed attempts at tackling tax evasion. That the PVV’s “social policies“ are largely empty rhetoric is however not consistently pointed out by the left parties.
The total share of left-wing parties in the national parliament has remained roughly the same as before the elections. The number two in the election results was a joint list of the social-democratic Labour Party (PvdA) and the Greens (Groenlinks). Together, these two parts gained eight new seats, a modest advance that came as a disappointment.
The centre-left ran former European Commissioner Frans Timmermans as their candidate, attempting to present him as a progressive prime minister but also a “safe pair of hands” for running the Dutch state.
The PvdA/GroenLinks coalition’s approach to combine moderately progressive proposals with an air of technocratic expertise and an orientation to forming a government coalition with parties to its right had some success in attracting votes from the centre, but did not attract many new voters to the left.
The left-wing Socialist Party (SP), meanwhile, lost 4 of its 9 seats. The party has become fixated on combining an increasingly conservative profile on “cultural” issues (migration, but also climate change measures) with progressive social-economic positions.
Continued setbacks have not been enough to convince the SP to change course. Its current leader Lilian Marijnissen has had this position since 2017: November 2023 were for her the seventh time that the party’s vote declined.
The last time the party was able to advance in national elections was in 2006, and since then the party has lost tens of thousands of members. The SP’s emphasis on restricting labour migration in its electoral campaign strengthened the right-wing framework that migrants as such are a problem, while the party neglected to focus on its strong points such as housing and healthcare. The SP ended up losing a large number of votes to the right and far right.
A bitter pill for the far-left was the disappearance from the parliament of the radical party BIJ1 (meaning “together”). Born from especially the anti-racist movement, BIJ1 was able to gather support from different parts of the activist and far-left but it has been wracked by internal fights.
The Ecologist Party for the Animals lost half of its seats and was reduced to three. It had gradually attracted increasing support for its principled ecological positions, but is divided and unclear over how it should relate to left-wing issues in general, not only ecology. There has been an ugly fight over the party’s leadership and divisions in recent months.
One possible outcome is the formation of a right-wing coalition led by Wilders.
Another big winner in the November elections was a new conservative party, the New Social Contract (NSC), a split from the Christian-Democratic CDA. The NSC entered the parliament with 20 seats. The CDA meanwhile, once one of the major parties in the country, won five seats.
Together with VVD, the right-wing Farmer Citizen Movement (another recently formed party largely based on the debris of the CDA’s base) and NSC, the PVV would enjoy a majority. But the NSC has said it is unwilling to form a coalition with a party attacking fundamental principles of equality before the law and the freedom of religion. The VVD has said after its defeat in the elections, the party should go into opposition. But such objections might be simply manoeuvres to extract concessions from the PVV.
The upcoming government will likely be quite unstable, however, very little will remain of the PVV’s “progressive” economic proposals.
The situation is contradictory, however; in recent weeks the largest climate change demonstration ever in Dutch history took place. Likewise, Palestine solidarity has brought many to the streets
In the coming period, the Dutch left will be on the defensive. Countering anti-migrant policies and racism and defending minority civil rights, especially those of Muslims, will need to be central.
[Abridged from International Viewpoint. Alex de Jong is editor of Grenzeloos, the journal of the Dutch section of the Fourth International.]