The Dutch Greens should celebrate their win, but not the overall result
Left-leaning media in the UK and elsewhere have been teeming with jubilant headlines hailing the success of GroenLinks in the Dutch parliamentary elections on 15 March. Without doubt, their progress was remarkable and well-deserved. However, it would be wishful thinking to see in the Green gains, and in the smaller-than-projected increase of the right-wing populist vote, a definitive turn from bigotry to progressive politics in The Netherlands.
The story of GroenLinks, the Dutch Green Party, certainly is an optimism-inspiring one: under the leadership of 30-year-old Jesse Klaver, they went from four seats to 14 in the 150-seat national parliament, making them the largest party on the left, a position they share with the Socialists.
The renaissance of green politics in the Netherlands was further emboldened by gains for the Partij voor de Dieren, a party originally dedicated to animal rights but today campaigning on a broader environmental justice platform, and for other – centrist – parties embracing climate action. It also appears that GroenLinks’ pitch to younger voters was successful, which will have contributed to the unusually high turnout of 80 percent.
GroenLinks ran a near-flawless campaign, making the most of the charisma of its young leader in a style heavily inspired by the Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012. The campaign was bold in its mission, billing GroenLinks as a party for everyone, not just the traditional niche of well-off environmentally conscious city dwellers.
For the first time (as this is not a common campaign instrument in The Netherlands), large numbers of members and supporters went out to knock on doors, even where support was likely to be modest. Meanwhile, leader Jesse Klaver was omnipresent in the media, and held slick rallies, the final one in the country’s biggest concert hall. It was sold out.
During the final weeks of the campaign, some polls had GroenLinks on 20 seats, which would have made it the second-largest party. In the end, they had to settle for shared fifth place, but could still boast having the biggest net gain of all. The mood at GroenLinks’ election results gathering in Amsterdam was euphoric, while national media indulged in speculation about Green participation in a new coalition government.
Right rhetorics and left losses
Yet, as Jesse Klaver was making his ‘victory’ speech to Green campaigners, he must have known that GroenLinks’ result was a double-edged sword. Two miles away, the Social Democrats of the PvdA were reflecting on their biggest-ever defeat, losing three-quarters of their vote share, and 29 of their 38 seats. Yet again, the Dutch left finds itself weakened overall. Some polls suggest that of GroenLinks’ ten new seats, as many as six were gained at the PvdA’s expense.
The election result will pave the way for a centre-right coalition, which may or may not include GroenLinks. Two of the parties almost certain to govern, VVD and CDA, are portrayed in international media as part of the response to rising populism, while Dutch analysts rightly point out that these traditional right-wing parties have in effect espoused much of the anti-immigration rhetoric of the extreme right. They do not make natural coalition partners for the Dutch Greens, whose narrative was the very opposite.
What on the surface may seem a clear rejection of right-wing populism and a boost for green and progressive politics, hides the reality of a divided nation, where the agenda of the likes of Trump and Le Pen has made gradual progress for more than 15 years, leaving the left perpetually on the back foot.
Whether as junior coalition partners or as opposition leaders, GroenLinks must continue to present an appealing alternative to nationalist bigotry. They have never been in a better position to do so.
This piece was first published on Bright Green, 21 March 2017.