The first of the big European elections of 2017 is here, and it’s promising to tell us…very little. The governing coalition of Mark Rutte’s Liberals and Lodewijk Asscher’s Labour are not going to be able to form government again, but at least one and possibly both may be part of a governing coalition. Welcome, then, to the most pure proportional electoral system in the world, where 0.67% of the vote will usually get you a seat in parliament.
The importance of a Dutch campaign
Campaigns normally receive too much attention in elections. We know from a wide amount of research done at election after election across the world that most people make up their minds on who they’re voting for before the campaign even starts. Dutch elections are a little different. Because there are so many parties, voters are less likely to have decided who they are going to vote for beforehand, and more likely to have decided on a group of parties that they prefer (which rarely changes from election to election).
This changes the complexion of the campaign, often causing an emphasis on the importance of personalities (both of the leader and of other significant party members who are likely to be part of a prospective cabinet) and of smaller policies that become points of differentiation between rival parties that are otherwise similar. As a result, campaigns tend to have a flow to them, in which voters will start flocking to parties that appear to have competent leadership or policies when compared to their rivals. This normally means that one to three parties will have locked in a majority of votes by voting day, as voters tend to herd together once a few parties begin showing dominance in the polls.
Another atypical campaign
It turns out the Dutch are not immune from the worldwide political rumblings taking place right now, as not even they can get a normal campaign going. The long-awaited surges of support for different parties have not taken place. Most parties are struggling to get even 15% in the polls, and the chances of a five-party coalition of some sort being formed after the election are quite high. There have been no stand-outs among the crowd – at least, not any that voters believe are able to offer a genuine, achievable solution to their problems. The government – a so-called ‘purple coalition’ of the two biggest parties in the chamber – is not particularly popular, and while the junior Labour Party (PvdA) may struggle to get ten seats, the senior Liberals (VVD) are on track to be the biggest party again, though only after losing perhaps a third of their current seats. Up to half of all voters are telling pollsters that they haven’t made up their minds yet.
This is all probably a reflection of the fact that Dutch politics right now seems like an illusion of choice, rather than a reality of one. Almost all of the signficant parties at a national level have liberal ideologies of some sort or another, rather like every other western democracy in the world. VVD are textbook liberals. Labour are social liberals in the ilk of Blairite British Labour. Democrats 66 have quite a bit in common with the British Liberal Democrats, GreenLeft promotes ‘green liberalism’, and the Christian Democratic Appeal abandoned conservatism a number of years ago in favour of liberalism, though its membership still consists of many conservatives. Even the Party for Freedom, let by Geert Wilders, is a liberal party, despite usually being called ‘far right’. Though Wilders’ campaigns heavily on issues of nationalism, particularly in opposition to Islam, the party’s policies are predominantly liberal. Even his arguments against immigration from Islamic countries are on roughly liberal principles, centred around the idea that Islam is a threat to liberalism.
These parties make up 123 seats in the 150 seat chamber. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for ideologies that are genuinely different from liberalism, despite the many guises of liberalism they may debate in the chamber. Of the remaining 27 seats, 15 belong to the only socialists in the chamber – the Socialist Party – and a mere 8 belong to the two conservative parties, the Christian Union (5) and the Reformed Political Party (3). The latter is particularly amazing when you realise that Christian parties have dominated the political history of the Netherlands. So weak is the state of conservative politics in the country that the CDA has abandoned it, and CU can’t even get a gig at the television debates, with the Party for the Animals filling the space left by Wilders in one of them, despite having less seats both currently and projected. The Socialists, meanwhile, appear to be in a bit of a rut (or should that be a Rutte?), looking set to pick up 15 seats for the third election in a row but refusing to have anything to do with a Liberal coalition government.
To further complicate matters, more parties may be on the verge of entering the States General. Not only are the Party for the Animals and the pensioner advocates 50PLUS already in there, they may well be joined by up to four other parties. Two are nationalist parties led by people unhappy with the Party for Freedom (ie. with Wilders) and want to replace it; one is a Turkish identity political group gunning for one of Labour’s last remaining voting constituencies; and the last is the Pirate Party, who have mostly made headlines for the employment history of their current leader. Though both PvdD and 50PLUS have reached double-digit projected seat numbers during the last five years, the campaign has brought their numbers back down to earth, but they’re clearly not going away, and if another two-to-four parties join them, it makes forming government all the tougher for the various liberal parties.
A final debate was held between Rutte and Wilders which will probably serve to coalesce some support behind the Liberals, as it placed him front and centre among the various ‘status quo’ parties. But this is little different from governmental paralysis, and the Netherlands is one of a string of western nations that seem not to know what to do or where they’re going right now. Economic indicators are going well enough, though not great, and yet there is a deep societal malaise and high levels of dissatisfaction. For liberal parties this an almost unsolvable – and perhaps even unrecognisable – dilemma, as economic indicators are meant to point to greater standards of living, and therefore to a happy populace. So, they are left offering little more than business as usual. And what, they will ask, is wrong with that? The usual business is, as far as they can tell, doing quite alright.
There are fifteen parties with either a seat in parliament or a serious chance of being elected, so it’s worth going through each of them to get a sense of what the Dutch electorate is faced with. Parties are listed according to size in the current parliament.
People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie/VVD)
VVD has defined the political direction of the Netherlands over the last twenty-five years. The epitome of a liberal party, VVD has spent only three years out of government since 1994, and has been the major government party since 2010. Their position as textbook liberals has aided them in becoming the party of government, which has in turn made them the natural home of undecided liberal voters who want to vote for a governing party. VVD is now on track to be once again be the largest party in the House of Representatives, though only by a slim margin, and may lose up to half of the seats it currently holds. Their polling has been fairly steady for the last four years, putting them between 16% and 20% support, which would result in a high 20s seat tally.
Labour Party (Partij van de Arbeid/PvdA)
The junior coalition partner is likely to feel the full brunt of voter dissatisfaction with the status quo. After leading the polls in the early months after forming government, Labour’s popularity went into freefall, and has never recovered. They’re now in the difficult position of arguing that the government has simulatenously been excellent and is in desperate need of change, without being able to articulate how something so contradictory is possible. Will probably be happy to get a seat number in double digits.
Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid/PVV)
Otherwise known as the Geert Wilders party. Wilders is famous for the level of control he exerts over the PVV: not only is he the only member of it, he is also one of its two founding members. By law, Dutch political parties need two founding members, but an organisation can count as a ‘founding member’, so the second founder is an organisation whose membership consists of one man. That man is, of course, Geert Wilders, which means that he founded the PVV with the support of himself. Wilders first entered parliament as a member of VVD, and his political views are fundamentally liberal. Nevertheless, his strong views on immigration (due to the threat he sees it posing to liberalism) have left the party with the unhelpful and mostly meaningless label of ‘far right’.
The lack of notable names in the party has likely hurt its ability to be seen as a viable party of government, and it is on track to once again fall short of even coming first in the election, let alone forming government, having had a comfortable lead less than a year ago. Their last poll numbers are quite erratic, which suggests a wavering of support among those who are not loyal Wilders supporters, but they should poll better than the last election.
Socialist Party (Socialistische Partij/SP)
With Labour abandoning socialism, a gap appeared in Dutch politics that has been filled by the Socialist Party. Originally a split within the Communist Party with the rather unattractive name Communist Party of the Netherlands/Marxist–Leninist, SP spent nearly twenty years in the political wilderness, more than likely due to officially being a Maoist party. By the 1990s they had dropped this distinction, and instead became a home for disaffected Labour members, and today has a distinctly socialist set of policies. This netted them 25 seats in 2006, while at the last two elections that number has dropped back to 15 – a number they are likely to get again this time around.
Christian Democratic Appeal (Christen-Democratisch Appèl/CDA)
The Christian Democratic Appeal is the most historically significant party running. CDA is a merger between three parties: the Anti-Revolutionary Party, the first truly dominant Dutch political party, founded by theologian, journalist and future Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper; the Catholic People’s Party, the successor to the Roman-Catholic State Party, who had taken over the ARP as the largest party in the States General during the 1920s and 1930s; and the Christian Historical Union, which split with the ARP over matters of governance, and was consistently a junior member of cabinet during its lifetime. The merger occurred in the 1970s, and the party ended up being the senior party in government from 1977 to 1994. A declining electoral base and a shift in voter ideological beliefs, along with internal disputes, saw the party kicked out of government in 1994, and it has never really returned to the same place it once held, despite since having another Prime Minister.
Nonetheless, they seem to be benefiting from their history, having the appearance of a party that could conceivably govern, and have drawn close to the two top parties in the polls over the last month. Their policies today aren’t all that different from VVD, though they occasionally pander to their ever-dwindling base. Their willingness to be in coalition with pretty much anyone suggests that they’re set on their liberal course, and they may be rewarded for it (to an extent) by the voters.
Democrats 66 (Democraten 66/D66)
Formed in 1966 (hence the name), Democrats 66 are a social liberal party with a university past. The latter was most obvious historically in their dedication to the cause of reforming Dutch politics in a way that they believed would better represent the Dutch people, which, interestingly, involved abandoning proportional voting, at least to some extent. Over recent years that tendency has dwindled, and has been replaced by a strong current of social liberalism. D66 was part of the famous ‘purple coalition’ that kicked the CDA out of power, but has not even come close to replicating their 1994 result since, and has not been part of government since 2006. Their popularity in opposition is always stronger than in government, and polling currently has them in the high teens for seats.
Christian Union (ChristenUnie/CU)
The Christian Union is another merged party, this time of two smaller Christian parties from post-war Dutch politics: the Reformed Political League, which left the ARP after the following, as part of a denominational split within the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands; and the Reformatory Political League, which was itself a merger between members of the ARP who disagreed with the founding of CDA, and former members of the ARP. The purpose of the RPF was to merge the evangelical, Reformed parties together as a unified force, which, through the existence of CU, they partly succeeded in. Since its foundation in 2001 CU has been part of government for three years, and has had highly consistent levels of support, never having less than three or more than six seats in the House, a trend which looks set to continue.
Representing yet another strand of liberalism, GreenLeft has a slightly odd history, being the merger of two socialist parties (one of which was communist), and two vaguely Christian parties that were more interested in the environment than the church and opposed both capitalism and communism. Apparently when put in a blender, the result is a form of social liberalism with an emphasis on the environment. The genuine level of support for GL has been hard to decipher, but it does appear to have at last double the support it did at the last election, which may be in part due to their leader being a lookalike with Canadian PM Justin Trudeau. GL has never been in government, but may have a chance of doing so this time around.
Reformed Political Party (Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij/SGP)
I said above that the Christian Union only partly succeeded in uniting the evangelical, Reformed political parties of the Netherlands, and SGP is the reason why. The Reformed Political Party is the only pre-war party left in the parliament, and has never been in government in its 99 year existence. The party has no real desire to join government either, unless that government were entirely and expressly Christian (and preferably Reformed). This has meant that the only party they have any real interest in governing with is the Christian Union, and the two together are highly unlikely to be forming a government any time soon. This leaves SGP free to do what they want in the parliament, unfettered by coalition government. They have had at least one seat in the House since 1922, and in recent years has gained a third seat, after many years of only two.
Party for the Animals (Partij voor de Dieren/PvdD)
PvdD are exactly what they say they are, and are the first political party explicitly formed on a platform of animal rights to gain representation in any parliament in the world. This fact seems to be appreciated by at least some Dutch voters, as PvdD may end up doubling their seats from two to four, having entered parliament with two seats in 2006, and staying there at the past two election.
50PLUS are the other young party that are about exactly what they sound like, though they first entered parliament at the last election, making them (ironically) the youngest of all the parties in the chamber. Led by an entertaining and well-known journalist and publisher, the malaise of Dutch politics was perhaps best summed up in the sudden explosion of support 50+ received late last year, into the early weeks of the campaign. But they had a bad week of confused policy announcements in February, and their numbers halved. Nonetheless, they look set to expand their representatives in the chamber by at least two.
The first of three parties listed here that are competing in their first election, DENK (Dutch for think and Turkish for equality) is identity politics writ large. Formed by two former Labour MPs with Turkish heritage, DENK claim to be a party built around social liberal talking points – equality, tolerance, multiculturalism – but have been on the receiving end of some pointed questions over their actual intentions as a party specifically seeking the votes of people based on their ethnicity, along with over their support for the Turkish government. It is more likely than not that they will enter parliament.
For the Netherlands (VoorNederland/VNL)
Another party formed by unhappy MPs, For the Netherlands is on the other end of the immigration scale from DENK, with its founders being former members of PVV. Their policies are more or less the same as PVV, and they are a possibility, though not a probability to enter parliament.
Forum for Democracy (Forum voor Democratie/FvD)
A third nationalist party, this time founded by a prominent Eurosceptic who did not want to be under the leadership of Wilders or the founders of VNL. Originally a think tank leading the charge for a ‘no’ vote in the Ukrainian trade referendum of 2016, it was quickly turned into a political party, and has slowly been building support in polling. It is somewhat likely to enter parliament.
Pirate Party (Piratenpartij/PPNL)
As with other European Pirate Parties, the Dutch PP is often good at getting attention, but not very good at keeping it. PPNL has, despite consistent (though small) support for a number of years, struggled to gain any attention compared to the other minor parties it is competing with, and as a result is unlikely to enter parliament, though it may well get the most votes of any party not to gain a seat.
The regularity of polling from different companies, along with the purely proportional nature of the House of Representatives, means that the major questions for prediction are about whether polls are missing or overstating support for some parties. The total lack of a stand-out in this campaign has left this question rather up in the air, but it seems most likely that any election day shift would be towards the two ‘sensible status quo’ parties: VVD and CDA. That shift, however, will not be enough for them to form government on their own. PVV will probably not do as well as they had hoped, either, as their chances of forming government are so low as to stop voters from voting for them, while VVD may end up doing better than the polls suggest, as voters shift away from some of the smaller parties that may have no role in governing, purely out of fear of a total deadlock.
VVD – 30
CDA – 22
PVV – 20
D66 – 17
GL – 16
SP – 15
PvdA – 10
CU – 6
50PLUS – 5
PvdD – 4
SGP – 3
DENK – 1
FvD – 1
VNL – 0
PPNL – 0
Proportional elections often end up looking like a maths test, and this one will be on the tougher end of the scale. For a government to form, it must have a coalition of 76 seats or more. Using the above numbers, the smallest number of parties needed to form any coalition is four, consisting of the four biggest parties that are not the Party for Freedom. The Socialists refuse to be in coalition with the VVD, but if the Liberals are the only party with 30 seats, it’s difficult to see them not being part of government.
The chances of such a coalition lasting five years is tiny, though they may be able to cobble a compromise together for at least some time. Outside circumstances, particularly in other European elections, may actually be the agents of change in the Netherlands and in Europe. The Dutch electorate does not seem willing to be the ones to pull the trigger, one way or the other.