Elections in the Netherlands
Dutch election result opens Pandora’s box

Geert Wilders

Geert Wilders

© picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Peter Dejong

The PVV’s win caught many by surprise, as the polls in the past weeks indicated a head-to-head race between the liberal VVD, the combined list of the Social Democratic and Green parties (GL/PvdA) and the centre-right New Social Contract party (NSC). However, the PVV’s campaign gathered momentum in the last days before the election as Wilders seemed to moderate some of his most extreme positions. In the final result, his party ended well ahead of the other contenders, with GL/PvdA coming second with 25 seats, VVD third with 24 and newcomer NSC gaining 20 seats.

The result means an end to 13 years of liberal wins in the Netherlands. Only two years ago, VVD and the social-liberal D66 party still became the two biggest parties in the 2021 general elections. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Rutte, they took the lead in a four-party coalition together with the Christian Democrats (CDA) and the smaller Christian Union party. In yesterday’s election, all coalition parties lost significantly, with D66 getting 9 seats (down from 24), the CDA 5 (losing 10) and the Christian Union ending up with 3 (down from 5).

The big question is of course how this could happen, and what implications it has. Since decades the Netherlands has had a group of around a quarter of the voters who are simply angry and dissatisfied and who want to show the establishment their middle finger. Four years ago in the regional elections they voted for the so-called Forum For Democracy (FvD), a party slightly to the right of Wilders‘ party, making it the biggest party in the Senate with 16% of the vote. In regional elections a few months ago these voters en masse left the FvD and instead went for the new Farmers-Citizen-Movement (BBB), which is essentially a protest movement against far reaching green policies. This made BBB the biggest party in the Dutch Senate with 20% of the vote.

In Wednesday‘s Parliamentary elections these angry voters had already moved on, leaving the BBB with less than 5% of the vote and the FvD with 2%. It first looked as if they were going for another brand-new party New Social Contract (NSC), a centrist party of angry people, led by the renegade Christian-Democrat politician Pieter Omtzigt. They were leading in the polls for most of the campaign.

However under pressure Omtzigt displayed few leadership capacities, and just over a week before the elections the angry voters moved on to what was probably their best trick yet, namely the extreme-right anti-Islamist party of Geert Wilders (PVV). His victory would be the ultimate punishment of the establishment, and boy were [n1] they right. Nobody saw it coming, including Wilders himself who has been part of the Dutch political furniture for the past 25 years usually getting around 13% of the vote. He skillfully grasped the opportunity and presented himself as a friendly reinvention of his former self, somewhat along the lines of Marine Le Pen, and was subsequently dubbed Geert Milders. However, without changing his policies.

Wilders was also helped by what must be one of the outstanding capital blunders in campaigning history, when new VVD-leader Dilan Yesilgöz indicated that possibly some kind of cooperation with Wilders might be possible, thus breaking the decades-long isolation of the party. This was a signal that Wilders had become socially acceptable, and with that his comet-like rise in the polls began –  only a week before the elections. Yesilgöz appears to have recognised her mistake and changed her tone in the final debates, but by then the genie was already out of the bottle .

Another element in Wilders‘ favour was that immigration had become one of the main issues of the campaign. It had also been the issue that had brought down Mark Rutte’s government. All parties had something to say about immigration, some ideological and anti-Islam. More parties took a more practical line, blaming the current substantial housing shortage on refugees and foreign students. That is remarkable – as if the dysfunctional housing market should be propped up by limiting demand rather than by reforming the rules and regulations that impede the market and the way the state is heavily involved as a player on that market. In any case, as immigration has been Wilders‘ unique selling point all along, when it came to the crunch voters thus inclined went for the real thing. It will surely be a main item in the government negotiations.

Interestingly enough there was no marked increase of the political right as a whole. The right block stayed around 40%, and we saw mainly a shift within that right block. The same happened on the left, where the sum total of elected progressive MPs remained more or less equal, but there was a big shift between parties in that block.

The Netherlands has a history of taking a long time to form new governments, and this time will be no different. The ball lies first in Geert Wilders court, and he will find it hard to bring parties together. Both BBB and NSC have indicated their willingness to talk to him. However this coalition of angry voters (and angry MPs, many of whom are totally new to politics) will find it hard to agree on a programme of measures since they are not angry about the same issues. In any case they have no majority.

Wilders would like VVD to join, but Yesilgöz is staying mum for the time being and many in her party would find a coalition with Wilders extremely hard to swallow. Even more so given a previous VVD experiment to govern with parliamentary support from the PVV in 2010 that collapsed within two years. The other bigger parties, foremost the GL/PvdA coalition and D66, have indicated that they will not work with Wilders and appear to be relishing the opportunity to be in opposition.

Still it is important to keep in mind that although Wilders‘ party won the elections, at the end of the day nearly three quarters of the voters did not vote for him. It puts him in a strong position, but not in one where he calls all the shots. Another majority government without Wilders is possible. This includes GL/PvdA, VVD, NSC and D66. But that would only come up later in the process and only once Wilders fails to bring a coalition together. These parties would also have to surmount considerable political differences.

None of these coalitions are likely to be very stable, and the possibility of new elections within one or two years is very real. The only question is who would benefit from early elections. Clearly the parties in the political centre, and particularly the liberal parties, need to get their act together.