Patrick Rasenberg

There are nine days left for the Dutch to decide which party they want to vote for in the upcoming general elections. These will take place the 15th of March, and the decision appears to be harder than ever. The Dutch elections are being closely watched by other European countries, as the Netherlands is the first major country to vote upon a new parliament, whereafter elections in France, Germany and Italy are to follow later this year. All party leaders are doing their best to convince the undecided voters, and this time they really have to, since the political landscape in The Netherlands is rather fragmented. This year, 28 parties (!) are campaigning to get as many of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives as possible, and therefore competition is fierce. Almost all politicians are doing their best to appear on many different talk shows and in many different newspapers, where they discuss what is arguably the most important topic during of this year’s campaign: the Dutch identity. Besides that, immigration, social security, the European Union, racism, and health insurance are major subjects during the elections. Prominent political players are incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte (VVD), the experienced Alexander Pechtold (D66), the ambitious Jesse Klaver (GroenLinks), newcomer Sylvana Simons (Artikel 1), and the big absentee during public debates: Geert Wilders (PVV). What are the plans that politicians have for the Netherlands and what is most likely to occur after the 15th of March?

First of all, it is important to understand that the fragmentation of the political landscape plays an important role in the elections as a whole. Since there are only 150 seats in the House of Representatives, and there are 28 parties to vote upon, it seems very unlikely that one party will get a majority of votes. The biggest party thus has to form a coalition with other parties to create a majority of at least 76 seats in the House of Representatives, although there is also the possibility of a minority coalition, but this is not preferred over a majority coalition. This is often referred to as the Dutch ‘polder model’, since the largest party is not able to pass all of its plans through and compromises have to be made. The current coalition for instance exists of the liberal right-wing People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the left-wing Labour Party (PvdA). This purple coalition – blue represents the liberals, red represents the socialists – is often criticised for the fact that the parties’ leaders did not keep all promises made during the previous campaigning period. Last summer, PM Mark Rutte apologised for the broken promises, such as the €1,000 he had promised to every Dutch household after recovering from the economic crisis. However, these compromises are inevitable in every coalition, although it obviously becomes harder when more parties are involved. According to the latest opinion polls, Rutte’s VVD will be the largest again, but with only 28 seats (instead of the current 41). Forming a majority coalition could thus get very difficult, since the second largest party would be Wilders’ Party of Freedom (PVV) with 24 seats. Rutte has already stated that cooperation with the PVV is not going to happen again, so the coalition can only be formed with more ‘little’ parties – probably at least four – and it could be very difficult to come to an agreement then.

The Dutch identity
Apart from the fragmentation of the political landscape, most party leaders argue that the country is very divided as well. Due to globalisation and immigration the Dutch identity appears to be at risk. All debates address the Dutch identity, enabling politicians to state that the Netherlands is known for its tolerance and multicultural society, but also that the norms and values are slowly changing. A good example of these changing norms and values is the discussion about Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). This Dutch tradition, which sees Sinterklaas come to the Netherlands to celebrate his birthday by giving all the children presents, used to be a completely innocent holiday, until it was emphasized that Zwarte Piet might have originated from slavery. This discussion became a very intense one, due to emotional reactions on social media, and the ‘lack of respect’ from both ‘camps’. The people that were in favour of the tradition felt as if their tradition was being taken from them, while opponents felt as if the tradition actually went in against the fact that we are all equal, and that Black Petes could be replaced by less offensive Petes. This discussion is just an example that shows that there are mixed feelings among the Dutch. Part of the society feels as if we are all equal and we deserve to be treated as such, while the other part feels as if the Dutch identity is being taken away from them by the ‘newcomers’ we let into our country. Discussions tend to get very intense on social media, and that is why there is a feeling that our Dutch identity is in danger.

The concerns about the norms and values we share in our country fit the populistic wave that spreads over the whole Western World. After the Brexit and the U.S. elections, it seems that more and more Western countries search for their own identity in reaction to globalisation. In combination with the threat of terrorism, this leads to the expected growth of nationalism, which in Dutch politics is represented by Geert Wilders’ right-wing party. Wilders is known for his anti-Islamic statements, his Quran ban, and his proposals for the Nexit and to close the borders immediately. Together with the French Marine Le Pen, he wants to start a movement in Europe were the EU becomes less important, and he promises the Dutch voter that the Netherlands will be ours again. Remarkable is that Wilders does not show up on television, public debates or in the papers at all, but instead only spreads his vision through Twitter. His strategy apparently works, since he led the opinion polls from the beginning of the year until now, although more people are starting to wonder how exactly Wilders wants to make the country ‘ours’ again.

Other issues
Apart from the topics that concern our Dutch identity, such as immigration, integration, racism, and EU membership, there are other important topics to decide on next week. For example the social security system is discussed a lot. Ever since the retirement age was increased from 65 to 67 in 2012, a lot of elderly have been trying to revert this decision. The Socialist Party, Wilder’s PVV, and the 50+ party are all trying to get the retirement age  back at 65, while most of the other parties argue that reversion of the policy would lead to an unsustainable situation due to the ageing of the population.

Another unsustainable situation would occur if the government were to ignore the effects of global warming. According to Jesse Klaver, frontman of GroenLinks, the government has to use taxation to prevent the people from using harmful products. For example a carbon tax is often discussed, but he has also suggested taxation on meat consumption. Luckily, almost all party leaders agree on the fact that sustainable energy is on the agenda in the coming years, so it will definitely be taken into account.

Furthermore, a lot of Dutch citizens have lost their faith in politics, and therefore prefer the use of referendums. So while voting for the House of Representatives next week, a decision concerning direct democracy is being made as well. Almost every left-wing party seems to be in favour of consultative referendums, but only a few want to change the indirect democracy into a direct one with binding referendums. The Forum for Democracy, a new party that was founded by Thierry Baudet, for instance is one such party. The topic came up after the referendum about the Association Agreement with Ukraine in April, as well as the Brexit. However, it remains to be seen whether direct democracy is really the best way to run a country.

As with every election: there is more to it than just the issues that I discussed in this article. All policy plans concern education, health, defence, infrastructure, employment, wages, taxes, etc. etc. It seems to me that there is not one party that covers all the issues the way I find them important, so even voting appears to be making compromises. Next week is going to be an exciting week, but also a very unpredictable one, since I cannot say whether the ties will turn. I can only hope that all the Dutch know what they are voting for, and vote for the party that is closest to their norms and values. Personally I think that our Dutch identity is not really in danger, and we just have to get the feeling that we are a cool country that just recovered from the economic crisis, and is ready to be a country for everyone again, which I think it has always been.

The 15th of March, you’ve got the possibility to vote at CREA.