- Category: Election 2012
- Created on Monday, 18 June 2012 08:12
- Written by Gordon Darroch
With less than three months left until the Netherlands holds its fifth election in little more than a decade, Europe looks set to be a defining issue in a way that would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago.
The rise of populist parties such as Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party (PVV), on the right, and the Socialists (SP) has given the Netherlands’ political scene a Eurosceptic tinge. That development should alarm Brussels, says James Kennedy, professor of Dutch History at the University of Amsterdam.
“The Dutch are the bellwether of Europe,” says Kennedy, an American of Dutch extraction. “In principle they’ve always been one of the most-pro EU countries, so that decline should be taken very seriously.
“If Europe doesn't do well in the Netherlands, it's hard to imagine more bases where it would be.”
The latest opinion polls suggest the race to become the largest party is a straight fight between the centre-right Liberals (VVD), led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte, and the Socialists.
A week ago the SP had a lead of six seats on the Liberals in projections for the 150-seat chamber, though Rutte’s party has closed the gap to three in the latest poll by Maurice de Hond.
Hollande and Merkel
A Socialist-led goverment in The Hague would strengthen the hand of French president Francois Hollande, who favours a growth-based recovery from recession, as opposed to the ‘hard austerity’ approach of German chancellor Angela Merkel.
Though less aggressively Eurosceptic than Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party, the SP want to limit the influence of Europe on domestic affairs. In particular, they want the Netherlands to meet the EU’s 3 per cent target for budget deficits in 2015 rather than next year, as demanded by Brussels.
“If the Netherlands is another sign of distance from Merkel's policies, there may be changes,” says Kennedy.
“My guess is that the SP, if they come to power, will closely study what Hollande does in France and seek the outer edges of the envelope without thumbing the rules directly. They'll be less principled than they are now.”
The Socialists, once a party of protest, have had to adjust their stance to reflect their status as a potential party of government. At the party conference in Breda in June, leader Emile Roemer said he was ready to enter coalition talks after September.
However, he spelled out a list of demands on key issues such as child poverty, the income gap between rich and poor and the influence of the market in the public sector.
The SP also opposed the Spring Accord (Lenteakkord), a €16.2 billion package of public sector savings designed to meet Europe’s new financial discipline rules.
Initially welcomed as a deft piece of bargaining following the collapse of Rutte’s government, the package has been increasingly criticised for placing too much of the burden on the shoulders of people on modest incomes.
Opinion polls since the deal was agreed have generally seen the five parties who brokered the agreement losing ground at the expense of those who opposed it, such as the Socialists.
In third place is the Freedom Party led by Wilders, who triggered the election when he withdrew his support for the minority government’s own cost-cutting package, arguing that it would force the elderly and people on low incomes to pay for “stupid demands by Brussels”.
Both Wilders and the SP have built their support on populist platforms, claiming to put the interests of ordinary Dutch voters above Europe and the traditional parties, whom they characterise as elitist and out of touch.
The rise of populism is striking in a country which has historically been seen as internationalist in outlook, with a high standard of education and one of the eurozone’s strongest economies.
“The popularity of populist parties was strong in the Netherlands even before the economic crisis,” says Kennedy. “Many Dutch people have lost confidence that the country can take all the external influences it has been taking, and that they are dupe of internationalisation.”
For many commentators the growing support for the PVV and SP represents a polarisation among Dutch voters between university graduates and people educated at a lower level.
The latest De Hond poll findings appear to bear this out. The two populist parties command 48 per cent support among the lower educated, compared to 19 per cent of those educated at a higher level.
The big losers have been the traditional ‘big two’ of the Labour Party (PvdA) and the Christian Democrats (CDA). The CDA, who were the largest party just two elections ago, now have the support of around 9 per cent of the electorate and are forecast to fall back to sixth place.
The problem, says Kennedy, is that the PvdA and the CDA no longer have a clear message for voters. “The strength of these parties lay in their ability to create broad coalitions of people who broadly shared core beliefs, but these coalitions are fragmenting, and so too their power.
“They have no real answer to this problem beyond flailing about a bit, left, right or centre.”
The fragmentory nature of Dutch politics is another clear trend. In 2006 the CDA won 41 seats to become the largest party. Four years later the Liberals needed just 31 – barely a fifth of the total – and the number in 2012 is likely to be around the same.
Kennedy says there has been fragmentation before, in the 1970s before the various sectarian factions combined to become the CDA, but the difference today is that politics is increasingly driven by personality.
That explains in part the success of Wilders, who is a strong performer on the campaign trail and has been successful in tightly managing his media image.
“Politicians need to find ways to score now that the old forms of politics, such as party discipline and building up expertise among small elite groups, are no longer enough,” says Kennedy.
“Playing to the media is a big part of the new role of the Dutch politician, and the media obviously only encourages the new central role that it plays.”
The exception, in many ways, is the VVD, which has not been tainted by the “elitist” tag to the same extent as the other two mainstream parties.
Its support has held up despite Mark Rutte presiding over a time of economic stagnation and public spending cuts. The party has even survived a series of defections by high-profile figures such as Wilders, Rita Verdonk and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
“Liberalism is one ideology that is still going great,” says Kennedy, “and hence also anti-liberalism, such as you see in the SP. It goes to show that the presence of ideological vision still matters in politics.”