Liberal success stories in the Netherlands – What Liberals can learn from the Dutch elections
On 17 March, an unremarkable election campaign produced two remarkable winners in the national elections in the Netherlands. Conservative-liberals VVD and social-liberals D66 became the two largest parties in the Netherlands, in a crowded field with 37 participating parties. For Prime Minister Mark Rutte it was the fourth time that he led the VVD to an election victory, as it became the biggest party with 21,8% of the votes (34 parliamentary seats), up from 21,2 %. D66 was the runner-up and won 15% of votes, an increase of 2,8 % since the last election, which means 24 seats for the social liberals (on par with the party’s best-ever result in 1994).
In a fragmented political landscape, it is always a challenge to distinguish yourself from others. This is already a struggle for any liberal party, let alone for two different liberal parties taking part in the same election. So, what explains the election wins for both Liberal parties in the Netherlands? How did VVD and D66 manage to win more votes in the increasingly fragmented Dutch political landscape? And what lessons can liberals in other countries learn?
VVD: Stability and continuity
The VVD started the election campaign with mixed fortunes. Nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Rutte’s government collectively stepped down in mid-January due to a child benefit scandal, in which the Dutch tax authority falsely accused more than 20.000 parents of fraud. The scandal implicated several senior politicians and left a mark on the rest of the campaign. On top of the government’s resignation, Rutte also had to impose a nation-wide evening curfew at the end of January, which led to large-scale public protests. Hardly the kind of turn out you would hope for in an election campaign.
At the same time, however, Rutte’s steady performance throughout the pandemic response brought him continued support from a large part of the population. As prime minister, Rutte was the public face of the Dutch response, which was by-and-large received favourably by the public. For this reason, the VVD remained electorally unaffected by the government’s resignation and polls indicated that there was even a small increase of public support.
Rutte’s continued popularity was a key building block for the campaign. His two positions as the head of government (“Prime Minister’s bonus”) and as the national crisis manager in the COVID-19 pandemic response (“crisis bonus”) highlighted his leadership role and generated strong visibility in the media. This was combined with a message of stability and continuity that resonated strongly with a large group of voters in the Netherlands.
A remarkable change compared to the previous campaigns was an economic turn to the centre. During the campaign, Rutte mentioned several times that there is a need for a “strong government”, in a shift of rhetoric that reflects a broader rethink of the state-market nexus within the party. This process started in 2019, when Klaas Dijkhoff, the previous leader of the VVD’s parliamentary group, published a discussion paper entitled “Liberalisme dat werkt voor mensen” (Liberalism that works for people).
The subsequent discussion fed into the new election manifesto, which describes a need for the government to “actively patch up the raggedy edges of capitalism”, suggests a higher minimum wage and proposes a number of (tax) measures to address the power of big tech companies. The party’s renewal could not have come at a better time, as the Coronavirus pandemic has emphasised the importance of a reliable state, that works for people.
D66: New Leadership
D66 began its campaign from a very different starting point. In September 2020, the social liberals elected Sigrid Kaag, Minister of Trade and a former UN diplomat, as their new party leader. Although elected by 96% of the party membership, she was still relatively unknown to the public. Polling at 9% at the time, the party faced an uphill battle to strengthen her public profile. Compared to other party leaders Mark Rutte and Health Minister Hugo de Jonge from the Christian Democrats (and later Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra), Kaag could not benefit from visibility in the Coronavirus response, and her campaign initially struggled to find traction.
After a wobbly start, the D66 campaign started to gain momentum at the end of January, when the television debates started. Throughout the debates, Kaag campaigned with the slogan that it was time for “new leadership” and presented herself as an alternative to Rutte’s leadership style. From the very beginning, Kaag voiced the ambition to become prime minister and with a number of strong debate performances, she convinced the public that she would be up for the task.
The clear positioning of the party also helped to support Kaag’s leadership ambitions. One impression that stood out was that the party was not afraid to make difficult choices. To address the ongoing nitrogen crisis, in which a court order summoned the Dutch government to slash nitrogen emissions, D66 campaigned on a plan to reduce the livestock population (one of the main pollutants) by 50%. Similarly, it also came up with a proposal to re-open restaurants, cafés, shops and schools for those with a proof of vaccination or a negative test result. Parties from across the political spectrum heavily criticised both proposals, but voters recognised that D66 dared to take bold, and sometimes unpopular, measures to address the problems of our time.
The broad appeal of Kaag’s leadership was also reflected in the votes she brought in from people who previously voted for different parties. D66 managed to win support from voters who in the 2017 national elections voted for GroenLinks (Greens, 12% of D66 voters), VVD (8%), PvdA (Social Democrats, 7%), SP (Socialist Party, 6%) and CDA (Christian Democrats, 5%). This showed that sticking to the centre can pay off, even in times of political fragmentation.
Why did the liberal messages resonate with voters?
In times of uncertainty, support for liberal parties is not a given. Nonetheless, the Dutch liberals managed to make sense of the current times and developed their messages accordingly. To begin, both liberal parties were in the governing coalition and helped shape the government’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic response. Compared to the rest of Europe, the Netherlands maintained light measures and for a long time avoided a full lockdown. Especially in the beginning of the pandemic, there were few restrictions and the government called on citizens to take responsibility for their own actions (Rutte: “I am not going to beg the Dutch people to stick to the rules”). Although this approach resulted in a relatively high number of COVID-19 cases compared to similar-sized countries, most voters supported the (liberal) appeal to their own responsibility.
The campaigns of VVD and D66 also fitted well with the current stage of the pandemic. VVD offered stable leadership, while D66 made concrete proposals to open up the country again. The campaign messages of some other parties including CDA, GroenLinks and PvdA, gave the impression that the pandemic was already over (CDA: “Nu doorpakken/Let’s get on with it now”), which made them seem out of touch with reality.
Additionally, both parties also benefitted from a general trend towards more liberal attitudes among Dutch citizens. The Netherlands is one of the most individualised countries in the world and the support for liberal values has increased with every generation. This trend is also reflected in a 2018 value survey, which asked Dutch respondents to rank a longlist of 55 values in order of importance. Coming out on top were health, honesty, love, happiness, safety, independence, and responsibility. Whereas the first few issues would clearly fit into Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and the fixation with honesty would deserve a standalone article, the values of independence and responsibility are a clear sign of the liberal leanings in Dutch society. In different ways, the VVD and D66 campaigns made use of all values that are important to the Dutch population, with a liberal twist.
Lessons for liberals
In a previous article on Freiheit.org, Otto Fricke, Member of the German Bundestag, (who besides being the FDP spokesperson for budget policy in the parliamentary group, is also an expert on Dutch politics) rightly pointed out the difference between VVD and D66, but he also points at the commonalities between both parties. From an analysis of the election results, we can indeed conclude that there were several success factors that the two liberal parties had in common:
1. Leadership: Voters appreciated the proven ability (Rutte) or willingness (Kaag) to lead the country and to take difficult decisions. Rutte was able to use his track record of leading the country through crises to ask for another vote of confidence, while Kaag made a convincing case for the need for a new leadership style.
2. Timing: Campaigns should not be fixed on the current stage of the pandemic or on a distant future, but rather develop and adapt alongside the woes of citizens and provide a realistic plan forward. Voters rewarded the campaigns that got this timing right, while those ahead of the curve missed the point.
3. New messages: Both liberal parties abandoned some themes that dominated previous election campaigns in favour of new ideas and priorities. In previous campaigns, the VVD focussed on issues such as the fight against populism, the importance of entrepreneurship and managing migration. Important topics for D66 were education, democratic reforms, and healthcare. However, this time they both campaigned on larger, more overarching topics such as stability and leadership that resonated more with the population amidst a pandemic.
Strong leadership, good timing and a clear overarching message were key ingredients for the successful election campaigns of both parties. As coalition talks kicked off in the Netherlands, we will now have to see how many of the ideas can be turned into reality. In the meantime, other liberal parties in Europe would do well to take note of the election wins and see how they too can offer a liberal route out of the pandemic to their voters.
Jeroen Dobber is European Affairs Manager & Leader of the FNF Security Hub at FNF Brussels