Fragmented field keeps voters guessing as Dutch election approaches

Everything to play for and everyone playing for it. EPA/Robin Van Lonkhuijsen

The parliamentary election in the Netherlands on March 15 is approaching rapidly. And with an incredibly fragmented field, it looks as though attempts to form a coalition government after the vote will prove a challenging task, to say the least.

Despite all the hype, it’s far from certain that the populist radical right Freedom Party (PVV) of Geert Wilders will top the polls – and even more questionable whether it will end up in government.

The PVV and the Liberal Party (VVD) of Prime Minister Mark Rutte have led the opinion polls for months. Behind them follow no fewer than five parties which, according to the latest figures, are predicted to win around 10% of the vote each.

Given the extreme proportionality of the Dutch electoral system, such a result would generate a highly fragmented parliament. If the final results resemble the opinion polls, a minimum of four parties would need to agree to cooperate to form a majority coalition.

In the final weeks of the campaign, the parties are focusing on socio-economic issues, including income redistribution, employment figures, healthcare contributions, and citizens’ purchasing power. But the debate certainly also touches on issues such as immigration and cultural integration – and the future of the European Union.

The “champion” of those issues on the culturally conservative right is Wilders’ PVV. The party continuously stresses the need to stop the “Islamisation” of the Netherlands, to preserve Dutch culture and identity, and to halt the process of European integration. The core slogan of the PVV for this campaign has a Trumpian ring to it: “The Netherlands ours again” (Nederland weer van ons).

Wilders on the campaign trail. EPA/Bart Maat

Indeed, following the Brexit vote and the US presidential election, many have wondered whether Wilders will be among the next successful populist anti-establishment contenders in the Western world.

There is sufficient reason to assume that the PVV will remain one of the main political forces in the Netherlands. However, while the PVV has long led the opinion polls, its predicted number of seats has been sliding in recent weeks. Most voters are unimpressed by its provocative and polarising rhetoric. In December, Wilders was even found guilty of insulting a group of people (Moroccans) and “inciting discrimination”.

Indeed, a study has indicated that a significant number of people would strategically vote for the VVD in order to prevent the PVV from topping the polls. And for the first time, all mainstream parties, and most other serious contenders, have ruled out cooperating with Wilders’ party in government. That makes a coalition including the PVV unlikely – at least at this stage.

Nevertheless, Wilders has undoubtedly influenced other parties’ positions and rhetoric. In an alleged attempt to woo potential PVV supporters, Rutte wrote an open letter, published in Dutch newspapers, lamenting the abuse of liberty by people “who came to our country precisely because of that freedom”. He urged those people to accept Dutch values (to “act normal”) or to leave the country.

At the same time, there has also been a surge in popularity for parties with a culturally liberal and pro-EU message. The social liberal Democrats ’66 (D66) and the greens (GroenLinks), which rely largely on the support of higher educated and more cosmopolitan voters, are riding high in the opinion polls.

How to form a government

The coalition formation process after the election is bound to become complicated. If the PVV is indeed excluded, forming a majority coalition may require the cooperation between most of the remaining large or medium-sized parties. These include the VVD, the Labour Party (PvdA) – currently in a governing coalition with the VVD and predicted to face a substantial loss – the Christian Democrats (CDA), D66, GroenLinks and the Socialist Party (SP).

This is an ideologically heterogeneous set of parties. They will find it hard to reach consensus in crucial policy areas. A minority coalition may turn out to be a more viable solution.

PM Mark Rutte cranks up the charm offensive as polling day approaches. EPA/Remko de Waal

Yet many Dutch voters who float between a limited number of ideologically like-minded parties may still change their voting intention, not least to try to influence the coalition formation process. Something similar happened in the 2012 election campaign, when many voters cast a semi-strategic vote for the two main contenders at the time (VVD and PvdA) in an attempt to see either of them finish on top. This hurt the results of less traditional “challengers”.

It’s worth noting that Dutch voters can choose between a rich variety of (relatively) new challenger parties. Already represented in parliament are the parties 50+, representing the (economic) interests of the ageing part of the population, and the Party for the Animals (PvdD), an ecological party placing particular emphasis on animal rights.

DENK (Think), the party of two ex-PvdA MPs with a Turkish background, may also win a few seats on the basis of a platform defending multiculturalism and appealing to ethnic minorities. That’s partly thanks to considerable support among the Turkish community. There is also limited support for two parties on the eurosceptic and conservative right: For Netherlands (VNL) and Forum for Democracy (FvD) – the latter of which also champions direct democracy through citizens’ initiatives.

Clearly, Dutch voters cannot complain about a lack of choice, and the electoral system is well suited to allow for the representation of minority interests and values. However, the grand coalition that could emerge from the election may not be an outcome that pleases anyone.

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