The media have touted the elections in the Netherlands as the potential third goal in a hat-trick of right-wing populist victories. The first two being Brexit and Trump (despite Brexit not being just about populism) and a much hyped possible third goal, a vote for ‘no’ in last December’s Italian constitutional referendum, being conveniently forgotten because it was really a vote against the incumbent regime, rather than a victory for right-wing populism. Put simply, that result failed to fit into the media narrative.
So if the ‘verkiezingen Nederland’ (it’s all Dutch to me) aren’t part of a continuing western shift to the right, what are the elections really telling us?
There are 28 Parties Going on Right Here
Conservative versus Labour, leave versus remain and unionism versus nationalism. A winner-takes-all electoral system and recent referenda, mean that the British tend to view politics in binary terms. The same is true of the United States, where last November’s election was really only about two candidates. There is a tendency then to view the politics of other countries through that same lens but it simply doesn’t work to look at the Netherlands in this way.
The Dutch have the most proportional voting system in the world which delivers multiple parties to the House of Representatives. In today’s election, there are 28 different parties standing. As such, no one party will win enough votes to gain power in their own right and so a coalition of ruling parties is inevitable. This election then, isn’t just about incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte and right-wing populist Geert Wilders. Latest polls put Rutte’s centre-right VVD slightly ahead with Wilders’ PVV battling it out for a close second place with three other parties; the Christian Democrat CDA, the centrist D66 and the left-wing GroenLinks. It is a crowded field and this isn’t simply a two-horse race.
Shifting the Debate
Wilders may no-longer be leading the polls but he has managed to shift the focus of debate further right. Whilst the PVV are euro-sceptic, Wilders has softened his stance on leaving the EU. The generally pro-EU Dutch are jittery when it comes to talk of Nexit, especially as they wait with baited breath to see how Brexit unfolds. Instead then, Wilders has gone hard on immigration and Islam, leading other parties (mainly Rutte’s VVD) to shift further right, in an attempt to what Britsh politicians would refer to as ‘out UKIP UKIP’. But just as the media likes to overstate UKIP’s reach, the same can be said of their obsession with Wilders. Of course right-wing populism makes for a far more exciting story than business as usual politics but just as widely-tipped UKIP failed to win the Stoke Central by-election, it is increasing likely that the PVV will fail to emerge from today’s election as the largest party. In refusing to allow Turkish Ministers to campaign in support of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan controversial, power grabbing referendum (there are some 250,000 Turks living in the Netherlands), Rutte has demonstrated that to get things done you need to be in power and moreover, have experience of being in power. Far from being a victory for right-wing populism then, the Dutch elections could very well be a victory for common sense, which of course is much more mundane.
The Dutch Trudeau
You can almost let the media off this one. Justin Trudeau is a media sweetheart and so to compare him to other politicians will always generate interest. Sure, GroenLinks leader Jesse Klaver is youthful, energetic and easy on the eye but the comparisons with Trudeau stops there. Klaver compares himself to left-wing US Democrat Bernie Sanders, rather than Canadian Liberal centralist Trudeau. If we are looking to make a comparison based on age, passion and political stance, a better comparison is surely the Spanish leader of left-wing movement Podemos, Pablo Iglesias Turrión.
Whatever the outcome of today’s elections in the Netherlands, the result is likely to be close. If Wilders’ PVV don’t become the biggest party as is expected, the media will simply move on and look to the forthcoming French Presidential elections to tout their populist Brexit / Trump / Le Pen hat-trick theory. Whilst this makes for exciting headlines, it fails to address other key issues, in this case; the lack of female leaders in mainstream Dutch politics and the amount of single-issue parties on the ballot, suggesting the main-stream parties are failing to understand the concerns of their electorate.