Something extraordinary happened in yesterday’s provincial elections in the Netherlands. It wasn’t a landslide of any sort; in fact the right-wing liberals of the VVD held on to their lead. Neither was there a new populist movement – and the Netherlands have seen rather a few over the past 15 years – that took the provincial parliaments by storm. What was remarkable, and I believe unprecedented, is that none of the parties secured more than one-sixth of the vote.
That’s right. Overall the VVD secured the biggest number of seats in these elections with just shy of 16 percent of the vote. Five other parties each polled between 10 and 15 percent nationally. The combined vote share of the three most successful parties in these elections fails to even hit 45 percent. Indeed in ten of the Netherlands’ 12 provinces, a minimum of four parties are needed to form a majority government.
The fragmentation of the political landscape in the Netherlands has been a gradual process, punctured by various shock results. The country’s undiluted proportional representation system has accommodated a tradition of political diversity, with new parties finding few obstacles on their way into parliaments. Often the political lifespan of such new parties has been short, particularly if they ran on a single-issue ticket. Having said that, some parties that made their entry into politics in my lifetime have become part of the fabric of Dutch politics with representation at all levels.
While the rise of new political parties is one aspect of a two-sided story, the decimation of formerly dominant parties is the other. In the general election of 1989, the christian-democrats (CDA) and social-democrats (PvdA) together obtained more than two-thirds of the vote. Yesterday’s result puts them on less than 25 percent combined. Oddly, this has not forced these former giants into the political margins. It would still only take a minor swing one way or the other for CDA or PvdA to be the Dutch voters’ top choice again – for what that is worth of course.
The 75 seats in the Dutch senate, which will be allocated on the basis of yesterday’s election results, will be divided between 12 political parties. Progressive liberals (D66), socialists (SP) and anti-immigration populists (PVV) will be present in similar numbers to VVD, CDA and PvdA. Other groups will include the animal rights party, the 50-plus party for senior citizens and two religiously-guided parties of protestant signature.
It will be worth keeping an eye on Dutch politics in the next few years. While the Netherlands have a long history of multi-party democracy, the balance of power has never been as delicate as it is now. Could this fragmentation be a blessing in disguise and result in greater representation of the electorate’s diverse priorities in decision-making, or will it expose the limitations of proportional representation?
Should the political parties fail to devise a credible way of working together constructively, how will voters respond: what would a vote against fragmentation look like?
GroenLinks: a big win against a bleak backdrop
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.
Jesse Klaver led GroenLinks to its best ever parliamentary election result.
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.
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Posted in Blog, Commentary, Democracy, Netherlands
Tagged campaign, coalition, elections, Green politics, GroenLinks, Jesse Klaver, nationalism, Netherlands, populism, progressive politics, PvdA