It’s understandable that Geert Wilders has captured international attention ahead of the general election in the Netherlands today. Wilders, a tall man with bleached-blond hair and inflammatory rhetoric, who lives under round-the-clock police protection, has been well-known on the fringes of European far-right circles for more than a decade. His success in some pre-election polls raised the real possibility of a far-right prime minister in western Europe.
But with the election, it seems more and more likely that Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV) are not the main story of the vote. Instead, they will be just one part of a bigger story that is more subtle but no less important: The increasing fragmentation of the Dutch political scene.
In the 1980s, Dutch politics was dominated by three parties — the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), the Labour Party (PvdA) and the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). In the 1986 election, these three parties alone gained almost 89 per cent of the seats in parliament.
But things have changed. In recent years, the major parties have largely lost their share of the vote. Some recent polls have put their support in the upcoming election at less than 40 per cent of the vote, with the PvdA facing a particularly big drop in support.
Certainly, Wilders and the PVV are part of the reason for that. Since the party was formed in 2006, the PVV has been a major force in Dutch politics. It was the third-most-popular party in the Netherlands after the 2010 election, and it agreed to support the minority government. It remained the third-largest party after the 2012 election, although it did not support the government. Polls have suggested that it could win the largest share of votes in this year’s election.
However, the far right isn’t the only force taking up mainstream political space. GroenLinks, a pro-environment party, became an important opposition force in the late 1990s. Although it did relatively poorly in the 2012 election, some polls suggest that it may see a resurgence this time around. Other parties that have pursued a green agenda, such as the long-running progressive party Democrats 66, also are polling well.
In fact, the big story of the 2017 election may well be the diversity of the political scene. A total of 28 parties are on the ballot this year, a record for the Netherlands. To United States readers, the scope of the parties’ platforms may be baffling: There is a party dedicated to animal rights (the Party for the Animals; PvdD), another that fights for the rights of pensioners (50PLUS), a new party that targets the votes of immigrants (Denk), and a party that pledges to represent the “non-voters” (Niet Stemmers).
This is not an overnight phenomenon. The Dutch political system has long been fairly diverse (there were 21 parties on the 2012 ballot), a reflection of the fact that the country uses a proportional representation system to elect its parliament. It is also likely that many of the smaller or newer parties will not reach the electoral threshold of 0.67 percent of the vote that is needed to gain a seat in parliament. What is really new this year is that polls are showing that six or seven parties could gain more than 10 per cent of the vote — and that could have big implications for any coalition government.
No matter who wins the most votes in the end, to get the parliamentary majority needed to do anything, they will need a coalition. Again, this isn’t unusual in the Netherlands. The Dutch governmental system is built around consensus, and every government since 1945 has included multiple parties.
The system has its benefits: It will probably prevent a far-right-controlled government, for one thing. Wilders is unlikely to be able to form a government, even if the PVV wins the most votes. Other large parties in the Netherlands have announced that they would not work with him, in large part because of his rhetoric but also because of experience (Wilders had informally backed a VVD-CDA government in 2010 but withdrew his support in 2012, causing the government to collapse).
Yet, it will also add another layer of complexity to the difficult coalition-building process. One major possibility is that, because of the large number of midsize parties, the government might have to include five or possibly six parties. This is clearly a break from recent coalition governments, which have tended to include only two or three parties. The last time a government contained five parties was 1972, before a number of smaller Christian democratic parties merged into the CDA.
Even at the best of times, it takes an average of three months to form a government (the longest it has taken was in 1977, when it took 208 days). Tom Louwerse, an assistant professor of political science at Leiden University, estimates that there are 4,095 possibilities for coalition governments this year. “It is quite likely that this year, even after the election it will be quite unclear as to what coalition might be formed, so at this stage it would be pure speculation,” Louwerse said via email last week.
The greater the number of parties in government, the more difficult it is to find a consensus and the more likely it is that one will drop out, prompting new elections. Fear of this instability may explain why Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the VVD continues to court the anti-immigrant vote: Even though Wilders is dropping in the polls and is unlikely to be able to form a government, every seat will count when it comes to putting together a workable coalition.
What’s happening in the Netherlands does bear some similarities to what has happened in recent US and British elections and may well happen in France this year. But the similarity may say more about a crisis in the country’s mainstream political movements than the strength of Wilders.
— Washington Post
Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for the Washington Post.