Shock Wilders win leaves Dutch progressives in despair

In the run-up to the 22 November election for the Dutch Parliament, the Tweede Kamer, pollsters predicted a tight result. Several parties were competing to become the biggest and potentially deliver the new prime minister after 13 years of Mark Rutte’s hegemony. Very few predicted the landslide win by the extreme-right and anti-Islam party of Geert Wilders. His party, the PVV, became the largest by quite a margin, with 37 seats in the lower chamber. 

Especially for the progressives in the Netherlands, this election outcome leaves a bitter aftertaste. Under the leadership of Frans Timmermans, until recently the Green Deal European Commission vice-president, they ran on a common list of Green and Labour candidates. Their result was decent, and they became the second biggest fraction with 25 seats. It is hard to see how this result will translate into government power. Especially for Timmermans, who ran as a prime minister candidate, his relative win in the number of seats will feel like a defeat. 

Now, after other EU countries like Finland with the True Fins and Italy with the Brothers of Italy, the Netherlands could soon be governed by an anti-immigrant populist party. How could this happen? 

The Dutch political landscape has been very volatile recently. During the provincial and senate elections in March of this year, in another shock result, it was the new populist Farmers Citizens Movement (BBB) that became the biggest in all the 12 provinces. In last week’s election, they fared less well and gained only 7 of the 150 seats in Parliament. Partly, this was due to another newcomer, the New Social Contract party of a former Christian Democrat backbencher Pieter Omtzigt, who rose to fame in the fall-out of the mistreatment of parents in the childcare benefits scandal and campaigned on a promise to reform and restore the public institutions in the Netherlands. Omtzigt’s party won 20 seats, and he is expected to become the kingmaker for the upcoming coalition negotiations.

There is real discontent among the average Dutch citizen with the traditional political parties, resulting in more than 50% of the votes now going to populist parties on all sides: left, centre-right and extreme-right. 

With hindsight, the determining moment in this campaign was when Dilan Yeşilgöz, the new leader of the VVD that took over from Mark Rutte, no longer wanted to rule out governing with the PVV of Geert Wilders. Ever since his first minority government fell in 2012 due to the unreliable support of Wilders, Rutte was able to sideline him by not considering him and his movement as a potential government partner. Yeşilgöz took a different stance and opened the door for a VVD-PVV coalition as a deliberate move to shift the attention towards migration rather than climate, housing, and social inequality. This was in line with the VVD strategy to let the government fail on the issue of migration before the summer. A strategy that, in the end, backfired severely.

It is frustrating for progressives to see the extreme-right profile itself on issues like the housing crisis and affordable care while at the same time winning votes in the social-cultural debate, playing the anti-migration card. The problems facing Dutch society and people are real and were exacerbated in the 13 years of Rutte governments due to a neoliberal approach. Migration, both intra-EU and foreign refugees, is posing a real challenge for a small and densely populated country like the Netherlands. But the real reason people should worry is that the social housing sector was stripped financially, and we did not build enough affordable housing to keep up with demand. 

The common Green-Labour movement did not fare badly in this election—finishing second, growing the share of votes and seats in Parliament and being a relevant force that competed till the very end for the prime minister position. If you look closer at the results, there is a genuine reason to worry. This united left project got votes from the highly educated in the country’s urban centres. The share of the working-class vote did not keep up, while the strength of the PvdA (Dutch Labour) was to attract and unite voters from all layers of society. 

Some pundits did predict this weakness of the shared project of the two leading left-wing parties, with the GroenLinks (green left) being too much of an elitist party and labour drawing more into the climate side of the debate. The acute climate crisis is one of the political challenges of our time. This topic fitted perfectly with the candidacy of Frans Timmermans but did not manage to enthuse Dutch society. 

Instead, the working-class voters signalled that they were fed up with politics as usual and gave Wilders a clear mandate to form a government. If and how this will happen depends on how things will evolve in the coming weeks or months. It’s unclear if a majority of Parliament will support Geert Wilders as prime minister because he is controversial. All will depend on the stance of VVD and NSC, respectively, the third and fourth biggest parties in the new Parliament. Yeşilgöz, the leader of the VVD, has already signalled that her party is not keen on joining a Wilders government but would be willing to give its minority support. It seems the tables have turned since the last time the PVV was in power; this time, they are on top. 


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