Ahead of last week’s general election in the Netherlands—the first in a series of votes across Europe this year—observers were anticipating that the Dutch domino might be the next to fall. It follows Brexit, of course, and the election of Donald Trump.
Former Brookings Expert
Senior Research Scholar, Director of Global Natural Gas Markets, Columbia University, SIPA Center on Global Energy Policy
The Dutch elections had turned into a hype of their own, and the notion that Geert Wilders would ever become prime minister—not to mention the notion that the Dutch would exit from the EU—was misinformed to begin with. Even so, there was a sigh of relief when the results showed that the establishment held its ground over the populists. What do the election outcomes tell us so far?
The current government coalition lost, as anticipated. Liberal party People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) lost 8 seats in parliament, but is still by far the largest party in the country with 33 seats (out of 150). Its coalition Labour Party (PvdA, social democrats) suffered the largest loss in Dutch election history, going from 38 to 9 seats. The blow is likely related to five years of structural reforms and austerity measures in times of an economic crisis (most economic indicators point in a better direction again now, but voter attitudes remained negative). The social democrats lost one-third of their seats to the two progressive parties, GroenLinks (GL) and Democrats 66 (D’66). Other parties across the political spectrum picked up seats as well, and a significant number of voters stayed home. Voter (dis)loyalty deserves mention: even GL and D’66, which gained seats, lost 40 percent of their electorate from 2012, according to Ipsos.
The widely reported head-to-head race between the VVD and the anti-Islam, anti-EU Freedom Party (PVV) did not take place. PVV won 5 seats, and is the second largest party in the Netherlands with 20 seats. One underreported reason for this “disappointing” result is a splintering on the political right and among “angry voters,” with several smaller groups taking parliamentary seats (the new Forum of Democracy took 2 seats and the Party for the Elderly took another 2). Moreover, a few small groups received votes but no seats.
As such, the “defeat” of the populist movement is an overstatement: resentment and anger in the Netherlands still run high, but are not as widespread as was (falsely) assumed prior to the elections, and not clustered exclusively within the PVV. While that party’s core support does come from the most deprived parts of the country, including the southeast of Groningen and in the far south of Limburg, it was also the runner-up in the big cities of Rotterdam and The Hague.
The election winners were the “middle” parties, which have wide-ranging political orientations: The Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) have 19 seats (gaining 7), the D’66 have 19 (gaining 6), and the GL have 14 (gaining 10). Both the D’66 and GL are explicitly pro-Europe and progressive on social themes; the CDA, under the current leadership, have become a conservative party.
The Socialist Party (SP, with 14 seats) and the two Christian parties (Christian Union, or CU, with 5 seats; Reformed Political Party, or SGP, with 3 seats) are stable, as expected, though it is interesting that the socialists did not really benefit from the historic loss of the social democrats. The Party for the Elderly now has 4 seats in parliament (having won 2 more), and the Party of the Animals, often ideologically close to GL, has 5 seats (winning 3). Denk is a splinter group from the social democrats with Turkish roots, which has 3 seats (winning 1), and took a substantial number of votes from the social democrats in The Hague and Rotterdam.
Even before the election, it was evident that building a majority coalition would be challenging. While historically the Netherlands has been able to build coalitions of two or three parties, the Dutch will need four parties to build a coalition now, which is unique.
The most likely coalition based on the election result would be VVD plus the CDA, D’66, and GL, which would make for a solid majority in Parliament (and the Senate). However, the VVD may prefer to explore a coalition with the center-right—so with CDA, D’66, and CU (possibly with the implicit support of the SGP). The first option would be complicated because VVD and GL have very different positions on, for instance, climate change, and income inequality. The latter would only make for a slim majority and therefore possibly lack stability. In addition, a coalition with the smaller Christian parties may be complicated for the liberal democrats, as the sides have opposite views on progressive themes like euthanasia, abortion, and drug policy.
There has not been a “patriotic spring,” as Wilders predicted, chiefly because many Dutch voters went back to the middle of the political spectrum. To a lesser extent, it’s also because splintering on the right helped cover up the still-growing disgruntlement of some voters. These dynamics slightly improved the optics, allowing the mainstream parties to claim that the populists have been halted in their tracks.
Wilders is likely right when he says that this genie will not go back in the bottle.
But that’s an overstatement too: Wilders is likely right when he says that this genie will not go back in the bottle. Whether he himself—absent offering workable solutions to what are sometimes real (and sometimes perceived) problems—will be able to commit people to his movement is another story.
Dutch political parties have complicated coalition talks ahead, with a unique task to form a government with four parties. The good news is that there are multiple realistic options on the table, but none of them are straightforward. By design, all of them require compromise, and the social democrats have learned the hard way that taking responsibility does not always pay off. D’66 will surely remember that from their previous stints in government as well.
Understandably, in these uncertain times we look for victories, and beacons of hope that things will be alright. If the Dutch elections offered this to some, then that is good news. And arguably this is an election result that the Dutch can work with. There will not be “Nexit,” and Wilders will not be prime minister of the Netherlands. But the underlying challenges that the Dutch face—the disgruntlement, sense of insecurity, and nascent racism—are still there, for the next group of Dutch leadership to take on.