Rutte riding high - but watch out for the undercurrent
This week, the Netherlands are heading to the polls amid strict COVID-19 measures. With a campaign based on continuity, caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte is set to lead Liberal VVD to another election victory. However, below the surface, undercurrents may change the course of the new government.
The polls are open for the general election in the Netherlands. From Monday, Dutch voters have until Wednesday evening to cast their vote in the parliamentary (Tweede Kamer) elections.
Unsurprisingly, the issue that has dominated the campaign is the COVID-19 pandemic. Like much of Europe, the Netherlands still has strict measures in place to control the spread of the virus. Amid fears of a third wave of coronavirus infections, the government tightened the restrictions in January and imposed a night-time curfew. Although some restrictions were lifted in the weeks leading up to the election, the different plans for restarting society are still front and centre of the political debate.
The pandemic has also had practical consequences for the election campaigns. Due to the strict measures, normal campaign activities had to be cancelled, forcing parties to move their presence almost entirely to TV, radio and online.
On the agenda: climate, housing, education, health care
Despite the strong focus on coronavirus mitigation, other issues have not been forgotten. Key topics in the campaign are climate, housing, health care and education policies. Whereas all parties agree on the need to address issues surrounding these topics, there is widespread disagreement about the prioritisation and the economic burdens. Although most of these debates follow a classic left-right divide, a new differentiating factor can also be seen between those parties that want to return to the old normal and those who seek to change the status quo.
Three developments stand out:
In a campaign marked by coronavirus restrictions, three developments stand out:
Liberals rise to the occasion
The two Dutch liberal parties stand to perform well, even though they are coming from different positions. The VVD (People's Party for Freedom and Democracy) of three-time Prime Minister Mark Rutte is expected to benefit from Rutte’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rutte’s Liberals are currently far ahead in the polls, with about 25% of votes expected to go to VVD - despite a childcare allowance scandal that led to the fall of the previous government and nation-wide protests against the imposition of the night-time curfew. However, throughout the crisis, Rutte has proven to be a steady crisis manager and it looks like voters will reward him for his stability.
The “crisisbonus” would come on top of the “premiersbonus” (Prime Minister’s bonus), which often rewards the sitting head of government with name recognition and publicity. Not an unnessecary luxury in times of corona. Combined with an agenda of continuity, this keeps the closest challenger, Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV), at a comfortable distance. The big question is simply not if Prime Minister Rutte will win, but by how much he will win.
Social Liberal coalition partner D66 (Democrats 66) had a different starting point of its campaign. Without prominent visibility in the coronavirus response, the party initially struggled to find traction. But after a slow start, new party leader Sigrid Kaag has picked up momentum in the past few weeks. Polling has gone up steadily to around 10% and by presenting herself as a challenger to Rutte, Kaag has managed to position herself as an strong alternative leadership candidate.
For D66, getting a result of more than 10% would also mean a break from its perennial problem of losing a large chunk of parliamentary seats after entering a coalition (“regeren is halveren”/to govern is to halve). But the ambition level is higher than just cutting back the losses and with the current momentum, a surprise could be in the making.
The EU Elephant in the Room
In past elections, Europe was (for better or worse) always an important theme in the campaigns. Stirred up by Eurosceptic parties, this always led to a discussion about more Europe or less. This time, however, populist parties have realised that EU bashing is not bringing in the votes. Instead, they have largely abandoned this topic in favour of familiar demagoguery about the alleged islamisation of the Netherlands (PVV) and flirtations with conspiracy theories (FvD/Forum for Democracy).
The resulting vacuum makes European issues conspicuous by their absence. So conspicuous, in fact, that a group of political commentators and academics launched a campaign under the name #EUolifant (#EU Elephant) to urge politicians to pay more attention to the (EU) elephant in the room. Although this cue was eagerly taken by the more pro-European parties (D66, Greens, and now also Volt), the EU Elephant remains a rare species in the national political discussion.
Amid a broader development of political fragmentation around Europe, the Netherlands is always seen as a prime example of the process of “Dutchification” (i.e. extreme fragmentation). In the previous elections, a record of 13 parties were elected in parliament, which was seen as a challenge to pass any type of coherent policy programme. Based on polling estimates, the next elections could see the Dutch voters topping that number once again. Two more parties are projected to pick up seats, which would bring the total number of parties elected to the Tweede Kamer to 15.
Calm on the surface, but pay attention to the undercurrent
At first sight, it looks like the Netherlands will choose continuity over change. It is likely that the caretaker government will continue in the same, or a very similar, coalition, after the election.
However, beneath the surface, interesting changes have been brewing. Looking at the diversity of the electable candidates, it looks like the Dutch parliament will be an increasingly representative reflection of society. Six female party leaders stand to be elected (up from one elected in 2017 and four currently in parliament) and the number of candidates with a migration background has risen to almost 20%. On top of that, it looks like the parliament will get younger, as the average age of the electable candidates is around 43 years (compared to 46 years on average in 2017).
At the same time, changes in the coalition composition could create a new dynamic in the next government. Likely parties to participate in the next government are current (caretaker) coalition parties VVD, D66 and the Christian Democratic CDA. But a fourth coalition partner will be necessary, and it is not a given that junior coalition party ChristenUnie (Christion Union) will sign up again.
So, instead of only looking at the winners, it would be good to look at the performance of parties that end up in positions 5 to 8. One or more of these parties will be necessary to form a new coalition (the option of governing with the Freedom Party is excluded by most others), and the choice of coalition partner(s) will be an indicator for the political priorities in the next four years.
At first sight, we should not expect drastic changes coming from these elections. But below the surface, new undercurrents may well change the course of the new government.
Jeroen Dobber is European Affairs Manager and Head of the FNF Security Hub at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom’s office in Brussels.