A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Going Dutch

Forming a new government out of the Netherlands’ fractious parties is proving nearly impossible.

Continuous fragmentation and polarization make coalition-building in the Netherlands an almost insoluble puzzle. So while the cordon sanitaire around Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom excludes him from power, he is still a centrifugal force in political negotiations.

© REUTERS/Yves Herman

You probably still remember the Dutch parliamentary elections on March 15 of this year. The international press landed in The Hague to see if the once-tolerant Netherlands would be the next populist domino to fall after the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. That didn’t happen; far-right candidate Geert Wilders was defeated, Prime Minister Mark Rutte got a strong mandate to form a new government, and a voter turnout of 81.9 percent was the highest in almost thirty years.

“All quiet on the Western front,” you could almost hear international journalists whisper when they left the country breathing a sigh of relief. But a closer look at the post-election Dutch political landscape reveals a heavily polarized country where a cacophony of one-issue and single-group parties forces the establishment to be uncompromising in negotiations for a new government.

It took Theresa May exactly 18 days to form a new government with the Northern Irish DUP in a heavily divided United Kingdom after her disastrous parliamentary elections on June 8. New French President Emmanuel Macron experienced a low-turnout record in the recent parliamentary elections, but needed only 45 days to form a broad-based government. In the Netherlands, talks for Rutte’s third administration are entering their fourth month now, and it is still unclear whether the parties involved will be able to reach an agreement any time soon.

Rutte’s Liberal Party (VVD), the Christian Democrats (CDA), and the Progressive Democrats ‘66, the so-called “engine block” of the future coalition, need a fourth party to have a majority in the Dutch parliament. The Greens left the negotiations twice over the engine block’s demands to change the Geneva convention in order to keep refugees out of the country and Europe as much as possible. Now the Christian Union (CU) is invited to the talks, but their conservatism on ethical issues and drug policy are problematic for the progressive Democrats ‘66. One way or the other, the future coalition will be an awkward mixture of parties close to Wilders’ anti-immigrant rhetoric (VVD and CDA), Wilders’ fiercest critics (D66), and probably a niche party with conservative ethical viewpoints (CU).

For traditional parties in the Netherlands, the price for participating in government, especially as a junior partner, is extremely high. Rutte’s government with the social-democratic PvdA was considered relatively successful in both the Netherlands and Europe. It was the first cabinet in twenty years that actually made it to the end of its term, even though it lacked a majority in the Dutch Senate (the upper house). With tough labor market reforms, housing, and healthcare, it managed to bring government spending under control and push the Dutch economy back in Europe’s top.

Nevertheless, the PvdA was severely punished in March of this year, losing more than three quarters of their voters. Many traditional Turkish and Moroccan votes were lost to the culturally conservative migrant party DENK, the elderly vote went to the populist 50+ party, the young leftist voters supported “Dutch Trudeau” Jesse Klaver, and progressive centrist voters felt more at home with the Democrats 66, leaving the Social Democrats behind as a party for virtually no one. Participating in government and taking responsibility in difficult times are no longer automatically a virtue for traditional parties in the Netherlands. The Greens and other center-left parties noticed this and are now hesitant to jump in.

Close to Wilders’ Wishes

Whereas the left is divided mainly on socio-economic issues after a period of heavy budget cuts, the parties on the right were successful with a renewed cultural conservatism. The CDA and Rutte’s VVD contained Wilders this election by approaching his rhetoric about migration, Islam, and multicultural society. Now that the economy is up and running again and unemployment rates are dropping rapidly, socio-economic problems lose their urgency and are replaced once more by “identity politics” and security issues. And that again is a problem for leftist parties, which are considered to be unreliable on law-and-order and have little to gain in a new center-right government.

The Netherlands will therefore most likely get a coalition agreement that in many ways is close to Wilders’ wishes, with stricter rules for migrants and their integration into Dutch society, and more euroskepticism. The international journalists that claimed that populism was beaten in the Netherlands should have a second look – the populist agenda is increasingly incorporated in the policymaking process.

The explosion of one-issue and single-group parties in the Netherlands is also to some extend a result of Wilders’ success. The migrant party DENK, the Socialist Party (SP), the 50+ party for the elderly, and the party for animal rights have all grown out of distrust for the Netherlands’ traditional popular parties. The anti-establishment attitude that populists have been feeding for years has now created new political formations on all sides of the political spectrum. Where new one-issue and single-group parties in the past used to be pressure valves, they are now becoming the new normal. Or, as commentator Rene Cuperus of the Dutch daily Volkskrant concluded after the elections, “The nation has fallen apart in a populist and a progressive elitist Netherlands.”

Sixteen years of Wilders’ populism have radically changed the Dutch political landscape. The traditional division between left and right has been replaced by pro- versus contra-globalism, by inclusion versus exclusion of minorities, and by anti-establishment versus establishment parties. The volatility of the Dutch voter is looming ever larger for traditional governing parties, which feel the constant pressure of one-issue and single-group parties eating away parts of their constituencies. The new government will have the immense task of dealing with this polarization while providing certainties in an increasingly globalizing world. Otherwise, the international press might conclude four years from now that “the western front has been breached.”