The Dutch elections – making sense of its fractures

Markha Valenta
Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte gestures during a campaign stop in Breda, Netherlands, Saturday, March 11, 2017. (AP Photo)


Much to everyone’s surprise, it turns out that this is not the election we expected. At the start of the campaign season, with the right-wing populist Geert Wilders riding high in the polls, the prediction had been that it would come down to a race between the conservative Liberals and Geert Wilders’ populist, right-wing Party for Freedom (PVV), leaving all others in the dust.


Following on the heels of the US election of Trump and the UK vote for Brexit, and with right-wing populists in France and Germany looking well-positioned for upcoming elections, all international attention was trained on Wilders.


There was much speculation that if Wilders won the elections, the Netherlands would be the next country to withdraw from the EU (Nexit), setting off a chain-reaction across the continent that could very possibly lead to the EU’s collapse and a new continental political regime.


Instead, within a few short weeks, the election has turned into a massive scrum. At this point, on the cusp of election day, support for Wilders has declined and the Liberals are ahead by a few seats, followed by the center-right Christian Democrats (CDA) and a flurry of progressive parties – the Democrats of ’66 (D66), the GreenLeft, and the Socialists – all breathing down their necks in close formation. It is a tight yet unpredictable race.


At the same time, nearly three-quarters of the voters still at this moment have multiple parties in mind and are not sure which one exactly will get their vote.


Labour Party losses


In any and all cases, though, the Labour Party – which has been governing in a coalition with the Liberals for the past four years – looks set to suffer an astounding historical loss. Now holding 38 seats in Parliament, they will be lucky to win more than ten this time around, as voters punish the party fiercely for collaborating so effectively in cutting back the welfare state.


Crucial to note here is that even the most successful party, the Liberals, are only netting about 17% of the vote (25 seats), while Wilders is polling at 14%, very similar to the Christian Democrats, even as the next set of political parties has only slightly smaller margins. In other words, whatever the result, the outcome will require that a coalition of four to five parties be formed in order to create an effective government. This form of proportional representation is the opposite of a winner-take-all-system. Mandating negotiations and compromises across ideological and policy lines – along with the pragmatic bracketing of principles – it variously contains or excludes extremes the better to ensure that the country does not lurch too quickly in one or another direction.


In total, there are 28 parties in the running, though ‘only’ about thirteen to fifteen parties look like they will win seats in Parliament. Even by Dutch standards this fragmentation of Parliament is quite extreme. Long dominated by three centrist parties – Christian Democrat, Labour and Liberal – to the point of utter, boring predictability for years on end, the Dutch political field exploded in 2000 with the entry of the gay anti-Islam populist Pim Fortuyn and has never been the same since. The first rumblings began before 9/11, but it was the al Qaeda attacks in 2001, followed in quick succession by two political murders (first of Pim Fortuyn by an anti-racist, animal rights activist and then Theo van Gogh by a militant Muslim) that completely altered not just the landscape but the logic of Dutch politics.


It became de rigeur to decry the hegemony of a politically correct “Left elite” and to loudly declaim that immigrants from the global South and Islam were problematic, incompatible with western society and wilfully resisting integration, while simultaneously asserting that only the truly bold and courageous dared to state such truths. The violent deaths of Fortuyn and van Gogh, after three centuries without a political murder, legitimated histrionic performances in a society more generally known for phlegmatic pragmatism underscored by (petit) bourgeois sensibilities. Many careers were built on such tactics, most especially that of Geert Wilders.


Living underground in hiding since the murder of van Gogh in 2004, he has been offering the example of his life as a testimony to the dangers facing the Dutch and the West in the face of immigration and Islamic violence. Over the years, he has self-radicalized dramatically; while in 2001 he still explicitly distanced himself from Pim Fortuyn and refused to denounce Islam and Muslims as such, he has now become a politician who wants to shut all mosques, ban the Koran, abolish dual-citizenship, encourage Muslims to emigrate and denaturalize any dual citizen who commits a crime.


At the same time, following all this upheaval and in line with ‘Third Way’ politics, Labour shifted rightward, even as the Liberals became the largest party. The result has been an age of liberalization, austerity measures, and cutbacks to the welfare state. These have been legitimated by and driven the introduction of a crude, rather reductive, individualist-corporatist economism as the guiding logic for reforming labor relations, housing, urban development, education, research funding, the arts, international relations, health care, immigrant regimes, and environmental regulations. Ostensibly this was necessary to deal with the 2007/2008 financial crisis, but in fact the Dutch carried out neoliberal austerity with such a vengeance that for years economic growth was noticeably worse compared to neighbors to the west and east.


The consequence is that while the Dutch are among the richest and most egalitarian countries in the world, much of its population has been experiencing levels of unsettledness, insecurity, stagnating incomes and shrinking futures for their children that mirror developments in less wealthy and less economically egalitarian western countries.


This is crucial to understanding the politics of existential crisis that has been a constant for the past fifteen years in the Netherlands and its significance to the current election. Housing stress offers a particularly fine – though neglected – example, particularly in comparison to the US. As a number of economists and journalists have uncovered, one of the key issues driving Trump voters in the United States, including wealthier ones, was increasing financial stress and distress related to home ownership. In particular, those with heavier mortgage payments relative to income were more inclined to support Trump, even as those with negative equity (in which homeowners are paying off mortgage loans higher than the current value of their house) were more likely to switch from the Democratic to the Republican party and to vote for Trump.


As in the US, in the Netherlands housing has become drastically unaffordable to growing groups of people. Following Liberal policies, the stock of social housing has shrunk by nearly 300,000 since 2009. During the same time, the number of people requiring social housing increased by several hundred thousand under pressure from shrinking incomes. So too did cutbacks in the number of homes caring for senior citizens, the mentally ill, and handicapped; stricter mortgage requirements; increases in temporary contracts that make one ineligible for mortgages; and increases in the number of refugees.


That is to say, the very same liberalization that introduced growing precarity (flex-work) in the labor market and reduced state care, at the same time reduced the stock of social housing available to those who were most directly experiencing the wrenching effects of these policies.


Worse yet, the liberalization of the rental market means that since 2009, yearly rental costs have increased on average by €900, even as the combined effect of the economic crisis, austerity measures and labor market liberalization has meant that the income of renters has decreased by €2200/year. (I am taking these figures from an excellent Dutch-language article by Mirjam de Rijk.) At the same time, the requirements for gaining access to social housing were further restricted, increasingly locking out the middle class. Finding affordable housing is, then, an increasingly desperate endeavor for both low- and middle-income groups.


Markha Valenta lives in Amsterdam and works at Radboud University Nijmegen. From openDemocracy.

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