By Steven van Hoogstraten, Former director Carnegie Foundation.
Recently, parliamentary elections were held amidst the greatest Covid precautions with voters holding their “verkiezingspotlood”(election pencil) .
The outcome has opened a view on tendencies which do not point in the same direction. Overall, there were distinct winners and losers. It was generally expected that the Liberal Party of Prime Minister Marc Rutte (VVD) would enjoy a strong support under the electorate, due to stable leadership in the fight against the pandemic. VVD was indeed again the biggest party with 34 seats in Parliament. The great surprise was a less expected but substantial rise of the progressive liberals of D66, headed by the former UN High Official Sigrid Kaag, to a second ranked position with 24 seats. D66 were for instance the largest party in Amsterdam, something that was never seen before. Sigrid Kaag had a good and visible campaign, mixing strong support for climate measures with high priority for education and housing.
As the Democrats are part of the current VVD government, it would be safe to assume that the reigning coalition did well. But this is not so true for the Christian Democrats, led by Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra. His party took a blow of some seats, and ended at only 14 MP’s. Many felt that their campaign lacked a specific CDA profile. Even if Wopke Hoekstra did well after a pretty cold start, he and his party never were a real threat for Marc Rutte. On too many issues they drummed the same beat, like on the need for economic recovery, taxation policies, etc. The number 2 of CDA, the well-known MP Pieter Omtzicht, gave the impression to be in momentary hiding. He is reported as saying that the election period is one great “spelshow” (TV spectacle), with limited time for substantial issues.
The leftist block in Dutch politics, composed of the social-democratic party PVDA, the Green Left (Groen Links) and the more radical Socialistische Partij SP shifted backwards, notably so the Green Left led by Jesse Klaver and the SP of Lilian Marijnissen PVDA remained stable at 9 seats, but did not win at all.
The hard hitting campaign of Geert Wilders ( PVV) – anti-Islam, anti-immigration – was rewarded with a less than expected 17 seats. Wilders emphasized that this still is a respectable result and that PVV will be the main opposition party. His views represent feelings and concerns of many people in this country, but he looks at the country as a park with a high fence and his style is too confrontational.
And then, against the odds, the party called FORUM led by Thierry Baudet, made a solid stride from 2 to 8 seats. This party nearly imploded in the run up to the elections due to various internal situations, so it was a small wonder that they managed to restore the sympathy of the voters on anti- Covid restrictions and anti-Europe feelings. There were newcomers as well, like the pro-European party “Volt”, and “Ja21”, a split-away from FORUM but headed by the seasoned (conservative) parliamentarian Joost Eerdmans.
The election campaign was only partly affected by the Covid issues, the international fight against the pandemic did not take center stage in the TV debates. There was a lot of exchange on Climate Change, e.g. how best to fulfil the targets set by the Paris Agreement. The Netherlands need to show by 2030 that its emissions of CO2 greenhouse gasses has been halved, a huge task. The option of nuclear energy popped-up repeatedly, and it was certainly not shot down immediately – as it would have been 10 years ago. Prime Minster Marc Rutte aired that a new nuclear power plant could be installed in the province of Groningen. That thought did not go down so well with the provincial authorities and was withdrawn within a day or two. The campaign also did not dwell on the failure of the Belastingdienst to service the citizens, the cause for the recent fall of the government. It was all rather forward looking, and inspired by high ideals. The debates about nationality and identity, about migration, about personal freedoms , about the Care system and the like were often the most interesting.
There was hardly a role for international or EU issues in the campaign, as if these belong to another world. The fact that two parties (Volt and D66) who spoke openly and unreservedly in favour of Europe were crowned with success, must have diminished the engrained political sentiment that Europe is only good for making money. That view has been allowed to dominate for too long. I personally think that the British example of leaving the EU will not be followed by the Netherlands, in spite of some “ketelmuziek” (pots and pans) which can be heard here and there (FORUM, PVV). But some European policies need a fresh and hard look, that is for sure. Migration being a prime example.
The great coalition-question, “de Formatie” always so typical of this country, is now on the table. How to form a government on the basis of these election results. Several scenarios are possible, some more to the left and others more to the right, all grouped around a center of VVD and D66.
Discussions have just started, and it is not possible – at least not for me – to make any prognosis. That is why the results of the elections will be puzzling material for still some time to come.