“It’s the Dutch identity, stupid!”

“It’s the Dutch identity, stupid!” [1] 

In 2012, two opposing winners came out of the Dutch Parliamentary elections, each campaigning on their respective ideologies, of either fiscal responsible conservatism and social liberalism. When both sides came together they formulated a plan built, not on ideological grounds, but on pragmatism. Very early on, this word proved to resonate as “establishment politics” as the Labour Party (PvdA) fell in the polls. This election, PvdA lost 29 seats, mainly to the challenging Green Party led by Parliamentary member Jesse Klaver. The PvdA ended up 7th place among parties in the elections of 2017.

Where the election of 2012 was mainly focused on the economy, in 2017, media and others caught on the premise that the election was all about the Dutch identity. Looking at the results, this premise can be estimated as mostly true. But there are other factors involved that will likely play a more important role in the years to the next election and also, will prove to be decisive factors in the formation of the cabinet and the new government.

First, the issue of security in terms of cultural identity. A quick comparison between the electoral maps [2] of 2012 and 2017 can be described as follows: the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (VVD), although they lost 8 seats falling from 41 seats in Parliament to 33, have been able to hold on and even expand their relative wins. The conservative Christian Democratic Party (CDA), on its account, surpassed the usually winning Labour Party (PvdA) in the North of the Netherlands, redrawing the electoral map completely. Both the VVD and the CDA ran a nationalist-conservative campaign this year expressed over one-liners such as “if you don’t like it here, leave” (Prime Minister Mark Rutte, VVD) and “the national anthem must be sung before kids start class” (Parliamentary member Sybrant Buma, CDA). Municipalities bordering with Germany have turned in substantial numbers to the Freedom’s Party led by Geert Wilders (PVV), who, for years, has taken an critical stance with regards to the religion of Islam and said followers in the Netherlands; going even further in his hate-speech during this campaign by singling out a Dutch ethnic group, calling them “Moroccan scum.”

Image of the electoral maps of 2012 and 2017. Source: NRC Handelsblad https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2017/03/15/tk2017-a1550054

fig1 _ its the identity stupid.jpg

Only in cities from the most developed and economically prosperous regions, like Amsterdam and Utrecht, votes for the progressive pro-EU Democratic Party (D66) and the progressive Green Party (GL) amounted to relative majorities, leaving the generally well performing Labour Party (PvdA) with only a small number of seats.

The next premise: the election results are a reflection of the distrust in the establishment political class. PvdA lost a historical 29 seats to the challenging parties PVV and GL (each winning respectively 5 seats and 10 seats). But this premise is only partly true. Although the VVD (the incumbent party) lost 8 seats, it still has a comfortable lead over number two, the PVV. Also, although much of the policies of the former cabinet VVD-PvdA passed easily through the Lower House, they got a lot of help from another challenging party, D66, to pass laws through the Upper House, where the governing parties held a minority[3]. D66, in this election, gained 7 seats, sharing third place with 19 seats with CDA.

Not visible on the map, though important to note is that fringe parties like the alternative-green Party for Animals went from 2 to 5 seats, the new anti-EU party Forum for Democracy got 3 seats, and the pro-immigrant party DENK got 3 seats. Showing a sign, though small, that anti-establishment politics has gained some and should be noted.

In order to understand the electoral shift from 2012 to 2017, let’s look back at the historical events between 2013 and 2016. In 2013, austerity measures in the Netherlands were imposed to lower the national debt, cutting back on social security. In 2014, the Islamic State rose in Syria and Iraq, destabilizing the region and once again, led to an increase in terrorist threats in Europe over interventions by EU – states in the Middle East. Also, Russian separatists downed passenger airplane M-17 over Ukraine, putting pressure on Netherlands-Russia relationships as foreign minister Frans Timmermans gave an emotional speech at the United Nations — later that year gaining the position as Eurocommissioner and becoming First Vice-President of the European Commission. In 2015, terrorist threats in Europe became reality as Paris was the target of three coordinated attacks. In generally accepted terms, the year 2016 came to be known as “the worst year ever,” seeing the United Kingdom to exit the EU over a hard-fought referendum, the election of United States President Donald Trump who campaigned on a xenophobic agenda, more terrorist attacks in Brussels, Paris, Nice, Berlin, and a refugee crisis that led to the questioning of uniform EU leadership. Finally, however unnoticed by the international media, the diplomatic crisis between the Netherlands and Turkey President Erdogan just two days before election day is by some regarded as a positive swing as PM Rutte (VVD) showed off his leadership skills in a real life diplomacy situation.

In hard terms, there is obviously a lot to make from what world events contributed to the outcome of the election. Global warming is — among other factors — often linked to the events happening in the Middle East leading to food and water shortages in agriculture, driving urbanization and ethnic conflicts[4]. A theme, although acknowledged by the political establishment, has not yet been materialized into policy. This could change from this election onwards due to the relative gains in Parliament by GL, PvdD and D66. The nuance behind this reasoning, however, does not reflect the change in the electoral map of the Netherlands. The terrorist attacks on the European continent and the refugee flows should be acknowledged as a possible explanation for the rise of conservative nationalism across party lines, seen back in the political campaigns held by the PVV, VVD, CDA, FvD. Together, these parties now control 75 of the 150 seats in Parliament. In the Netherlands, ethnopolitics have herewith become increasingly influential as DENK’s first win of 3 seats has also shown. Parties campaigning on inclusiveness, namely PvdA, GL, D66 hold altogether 42 seats only. Falling short of the premise made by international media that the Netherlands was able to ward off populist nationalism[5].

Of course, some nuance should be brought in as the PVV, previous to the election, was already ruled out as a potential governing party by the major parties, including the VVD and CDA; this could explain their wins. But the conservative tendencies of the Dutch electorate should be taken into consideration in the lead-up to the formation of the new cabinet, especially to what policies will be implemented in order to come to terms with the Dutch voter who has increasingly come to feel threatened in its cultural identity.

The formation of government and the appointment of the cabinet ministers is what will likely be a challenging process as different takes on the implementing of national security policies will be hard fought between the conservative camp (VVD and CDA, number one and three) and the progressive camp (D66, number three) that are now the most likely coalition partners. The three together only hold 71 seats of the 76 seats required for a majority in the Lower House. The conservative camp would likely agree to join hands with the conservative Christian Union (CU) and the ultra-conservative Reformist Party (SGP), but this would throw off the D66 party as its chances to implement a progressive vision for governing will then be lost. D66’s favorite parties for a coalition come down to PvdA and GL, but they respectively have their own reservations when it comes to governing with the conservative camp. Already, the formation process is looking to be a huge challenge and comes with the risk of, either falling apart prematurely, or, not being able to form at all. In both cases, the election process will have to start over.

Whichever government will be formed, both camps on the conservative and progressive side will have to make a lot of compromises, digressing from their respective ideologies to a pragmatic plan for governing. This proved devastating for the PvdA which could further determine the choices of PvdA and GL to skip the formation process and remain in the opposition. Progressive parties will likely see much harder fought integration policies enacted to come to terms with the nationalistic electorate, while conservatives will have to give in to government incentives into the green energy market, education, and health care. But these policies altogether are insufficient to the external factors that have led to the redrawing of the electoral map. The decrease of feelings of insecurities will likely fall back on strong diplomatic leadership: from US President Trump’s ambivalent stance on NATO, to Turkey President Erdogan’s rise to autocracy, to Russia President Putin’s aggression at Europe’s borders; the newly elected government has a tough role to play in the years to come.

Amid all these external insecurities, the European Union is currently going through an existential crisis. The Brexit triggered popular support in the Netherlands for a Nexit. This last one was warded off, but there is still potential for France to vote for a Frexit should presidential candidate Marine Le Pen come to power.

So, what will the future hold for the Netherlands? The parliamentary win for Prime Minister Rutte, who can now decide on the formation process, has shown that the Dutch electorate, by far, still has a sense of trust in the political establishment. They have also asked for a conservative nationalistic leader that can stand up to bullies like Putin and Erdogan. If Rutte succeeds with the formation, the government may be able to remain together for another four years; and PM Rutte, by 2021, could run another successful campaign as the external factors described previously are unlikely to decrease. Cultural identity is likely to remain an important theme for the years to come and ethnopolitics has the potential to escalate now that two fringe parties, FvD and DENK, can widen the rift between the conservative and the progressive camps now holding on to center-right and center-left positions on the political spectrum. In conclusion, nationalist populism has not been warded off by a long shot. Whichever government will be formed, the ability of Dutch political leaders to tackle the security issues ahead are likely to be firmly tested in the years to come.



– – –
[1] In 1992, James Carville, an aide to U.S. presidential candidate Bill Clinton, earned widespread acclaim for his insistence that everyone working for Clinton should focus on the interests of working people. “It’s the economy, stupid,” he said over and over until it became a mantra and part of the American political lexicon. For this piece, I follow the premise set forth by opinion-makers in Dutch media that the election is about the cultural identity of the Dutch, who feel more and more threatened by the traditions of migrants from non-western countries.
[2] Image of the electoral maps of 2012 and 2017. Source: NRC Handelsblad https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2017/03/15/tk2017-a1550054
[3] Analysis voting behavior Lower House 2013 – 2016: D66 Political center. D66 voted by an estimate of 65% with the ruling cabinet parties VVD and PvdA. Source: http://www.datagraver.com/case/analyse-stemgedrag-tweede-kamer-2013-2016-d66-politieke-midden
[4] The impact of global warming on the Syria conflict is heavily discussed. In fact, it should be noted that although the media narrative steers towards a general acceptation of that premise, the influence of government policies in the case of Syria should not be underestimated. Syria had centralized its water management through the Ministry of Irrigation (MOI), an institute responsible for making suitable water resources, banning the drilling of wells since early-2002. This resulted in a low 60% efficiency of field irrigation, and productive land decreased 10%. And although the prohibition of these wells occurred after ten years of crises: the pollution of water through uncontrolled discharge of industrial wastewater resulting in 900,000 cases of waterborne diseases in 1996, typhoid and hepatitis infections between 1991-95 and 1995-2000, and the inability of managing Syria’s waters has reduced the availability and quality of what is generally considered a “public good” for the country (AQUASTAT, 2008) (Young Guns, 2015). Source: https://young-guns.org/2015/11/01/international-cooperation-climate-change-in-fragile-territories/
[5] Parliamentary member Jesse Klaver told CNN in an interview on election night that the Netherlands stopped populism. This is not true by any measure. Source: http://edition.cnn.com/videos/world/2017/03/16/intv-amanpour-jesse-klaver-dutch-election.cnn

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