Some countries experience the occasional election fever. A period in which political passions rise, when the heartbeat of political life reaches an elevated pitch. The Netherlands is not such a country, even under normal circumstances. The Dutch campaign season tends to be exceedingly short, the rhetoric bland, the political landscape complex and highly fragmented. This lack of intensity is even more acute in times of lockdown, without gatherings and proper campaigns. With the elections restricted to television screens and social media, they have taken on an eerie, virtual character. Commentators speak of one of the most boring campaigns in Dutch history. ‘Nothing happens’, pollsters complain, ‘because there is nothing happening’. Rather like the pandemic, the election needs to be sat out and passively endured, instead of actively engaged in.
With tomorrow’s elections taking place in the midst of an unprecedented economic and public health crisis, there is in fact much at stake. But the prevailing sentiment seems to be that the dice have already been cast. The right-wing liberal VVD, the dominant party in the ruling centre-right coalition, is outperforming all the other parties in the polls (leading at 25% of the vote). While the crisis management of the government leaves much to be desired, the rally-around-the-flag effect that is in evidence in many countries has also made its mark on Dutch politics. The pandemic appears to have given Prime Minister Mark Rutte (VVD) an ineradicable guardian-of-the-people aura. Much like the Conservatives under Boris Johnson, the VVD has seized the opportunity by adopting a more centrist position on socio-economic policy, combined with a hard-line nationalist stance on cultural issues to ward off the threat from Geert Wilders’s right-populist Freedom Party, which continues to draw a sizable segment (13%) of the vote.
While the centre-right and the populist right are ascendant, the left is on course for one of its worst election results in post-war history. In the 2017 elections, the left-wing parties failed to gather more than a third of the vote. The present polls – generally quite reliable in the Netherlands – seem to confirm that this was not a freak result. This historic unpopularity is all the more surprising, since the pandemic has led to a resurgence of economic ideas previously associated with the left. The major Dutch parties now all claim to oppose austerity and favour public investment and expanding social security. The political climate then seems to have become friendlier to progressive policies but hostile to left-wing parties. To better understand this paradoxical and depressing political landscape, we can turn to three underlying trends: the crisis of Dutch social democracy, the culturalization of politics, and the return of the state.
The story of the left’s decline is, to a great extent, tied up with that of the once powerful Social Democratic Party (PvdA). For decades, the party formed one of the three main pillars of Dutch political life, together with the VVD and the centrist Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA). Since the 1990s however, the PvdA has experienced steady electoral decline. The final implosion came in the 2017 elections, when it lost 29 of its 38 seats. Voters punished the party for the austerity measures it had imposed in the aftermath of the financial crisis. In coalition with the VVD, the PvdA had signed off on a historic spree of austerity, which included a series of controversial reforms to social security and social care. Internationally, it was the PvdA Finance Minister and Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem who became the face of this government, in his memorable confrontations with Yanis Varoufakis. While broadly supportive of austerity in Greece, Dutch voters were less enthusiastic about some of the same medicine being applied to the Netherlands.
The 2017 elections proved the death knell for a mode of politics that had been pursued since the 1990s. In a landmark lecture in 1995, party leader Wim Kok had proclaimed a ‘definitive farewell to socialist ideology’, which he presented as the shedding of old ideological ballast, necessary for modernizing the party and moving it to the centre. But in the Netherlands, with its proportional voting system, this immediately opened up space for left-wing contenders. The Socialist Party gathered votes from the disenfranchised working class, while the GreenLeft party gained popularity among a more academic progressive milieu (both tend to fluctuate between 5–10 % of the vote). In response, the PvdA followed a different strategy to that of New Labour or Clinton’s Democratic Party. Rather than loudly proclaiming a Dutch Third Way, the party leadership stuck to its old class-based rhetoric, while implementing typical market-based policies once in government. Put more crudely: the party talked left and governed from the centre.
This somewhat schizophrenic approach allowed the PvdA to appeal to a large segment of the electorate. As the biggest party left of centre, it was the natural choice for those who hoped to move an incoming coalition government somewhat to the left. In the 2012 election campaign, the PvdA had railed against austerity, rightly claiming that it had deepened the economic crisis in the Netherlands. Once in government, it all too quickly came around, citing the need ‘to take responsibility’, and chiding its own electorate for their nostalgic attachment to welfare state provision. In a 2015 conference in Amsterdam with then Labour MP Chuka Umunna, the PvdA Deputy Prime Minister Lodewijk Asscher lambasted Corbynism and the critiques of austerity put forward by economists like Krugman and Stiglitz:
We have to end the debate on austerity. The truth is as follows: we cannot pretend to offer people better living standards, better education, better health care, if the budget is a mess. It would be like a father with large debts, addicted to gambling, who comforts his children by promising that they will go on holidays next summer. The children will know better. […] Progressives have to be serious about budget discipline and economic competence.
In reality, however, the debate on austerity moved in the opposite direction. Economists blamed the Dutch government for having deepened the crisis, with even the IMF and the OECD publishing critical reports on its cutbacks. Their hopes repeatedly dashed, voters responded with growing anger and cynicism, wondering why the PvdA always negotiated so badly when it ended up in coalitions with the right. This dynamic led to the party’s eventual electoral implosion. After the disastrous 2017 election results, its initial impulse was to blame communication. Dijsselbloem said ‘he still believed we have done what was necessary’, what was ‘responsible and good for the Netherlands’. The only problem was that they had failed to convince their supporters: ‘we lost them somewhere along the way’.
Asscher was left with the unenviable task of rebuilding a viable electoral force from the wreckage of his party. He decided to turn left, but without disowning the austerity policies of the past. The rub was that he himself had been so intimately involved with cuts that public recognition of their counterproductive effects threatened to further compromise his own credibility. Ultimately, walking this tightrope proved untenable. In 2019, a political scandal came to light concerning the benefits for day-care provision. Responding to political pressure to pursue benefit fraud, the tax service had incorrectly accused thousands of parents, doggedly pursuing them and driving many to ruin based on ethnic profiling. Responsibility rested in part with Asscher, and he was pressured to resign as leader of the party in January this year. With a new leader, Lilianne Ploumen, the PvdA is now set to gain some seats in tomorrow’s elections, but it is nowhere near its previous standing. Meanwhile the other, smaller left-wing parties have not been able to fill the void (both now poll at around 7–8%).
This crisis of social democracy is tied up with a second important trend: the culturalization of politics. For a long time, the primary terrain of contestation in Dutch politics was socio-economic policy. This provided a favourable context for the left. A sizable chunk of the Dutch electorate combines economically progressive views with more conservative stances on cultural issues, and so as long as socio-economic issues predominate, the left can appeal to a broad electorate. In the 1990s however, a new market-oriented consensus emerged. When Francis Fukuyama visited the Netherlands in 1992, he observed that the Dutch were among the first to have reached the end of history. Dutch political and intellectual elites were initially content for technocratic management to replace the mass politics of yesteryear. Yet hopes for a post-political consensus were quickly shattered. A new cultural cleavage arose around the so-called three I’s – immigration, Islam, and (national) identity – which came to dominate Dutch politics in the next decades, pushing the left into a defensive position, and providing the right with a strong electoral advantage.
Public concern about immigration had long been on the rise. The Moroccan and Turkish guestworkers who had come to work in the booming industrial sector in the 1960s and 1970s, found themselves out of work during the crisis of the 1980s. Segregation, poverty and urban immigration developed into prominent political issues in the 1990s. Dutch intellectuals soon diagnosed the failure of ‘the multicultural drama’. There was broad support for more stringent immigration and integration policies, and a renewed focus on restoring national identity. Only by clearly articulating the dominant Dutch values – so the argument went – could immigrants be integrated in the Dutch majority culture.
Right-wing leaders started mobilizing on these issues in the early 1990s. In a debate with Fukuyama, the then VVD-leader Frits Bolkestein argued that while communism had imploded, the West was now faced with another adversary: ‘The fact remains that the world contains a billion Muslims, of which many consider their ideology superior to the “godless, materialist, and egoistic liberalism of the West”’. In a series of controversial lectures, Bolkestein argued that the values of Western liberalism were under threat due to the presence of Muslim immigrants in European societies. He proposed to strengthen Dutch national identity and promote the rapid assimilation of immigrants to Western values.
Another important inspiration for the right was the American neoconservative Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. After Bolkestein, it was the charismatic populist Pim Fortuyn that popularized this culture-clash argument, proudly introducing himself to American journalists as ‘the Samuel Huntington of Dutch politics’ and proposing a ‘Cold War against Islam’ on the eve of the 9/11 attacks. Geert Wilders, presently the country’s most successful right-wing populist, similarly built his Party for Freedom (PVV) on Huntington’s theory, arguing in his first party broadcast that ‘Islam orients itself against Western civilization as such’, and calling for a ‘liberal jihad’ against Islam. As part of this same argument, the right derided the left as fluffy ‘cultural relativists’, unable or unwilling to defend Western civilization.
Dutch politics thus became consumed by a never-ending culture war that initially centred on Islam but expanded to include political correctness, ‘woke’ politics, the legacy of Dutch slavery, diversity trainings, gender neutral toilets and – more significantly – opposition to European integration. Mark Rutte, an inveterate opponent of the ‘ever closer Union’, became party leader of the VVD in the midst of the culture wars, and proved adept at positioning his party as a more mainstream alternative to right-wing populism. Seamlessly combining cultural nationalism with an economic policy favouring multinationals (tax cuts, free-trade agreements, austerity), Rutte was able to play a dominant role as kingmaker in Dutch politics.
This new political context presented the Socialist Party and GreenLeft with a major problem, since their electorates were intensely divided on such issues. As a result, they had considerable difficulties positioning themselves, going back and forth between toughening their immigration stance (with the SP even proposing special working permits for people from other EU countries) and speaking ill of right-wing populism. As an entire generation has now been socialized in Dutch culture wars, it has been hard to switch gears, even in the midst of the greatest economic crisis of the post-war era.
The third and final trend which compounded this secular decline is the sea change in economic policy triggered by the pandemic. Dutch newspapers have described it as a ‘swing to the left’ in economic policy. As noted, most major parties now oppose austerity and favour raising the minimum wage, stronger social protections, challenging the power of Big Tech, raising taxes on wealth and business, setting up public investment funds and so on. The political calculation on austerity has changed; the preferred option is now to borrow and spend, eventually paying off the added debt through renewed economic growth. The election platforms of the left-wing parties espouse a degree of ambition not seen since the 1970s. This includes proposals for a job guarantee, creating a new Ministry of Housing to deal with the housing shortage, a Green New Deal, and a cash grant for young people, along the lines of Thomas Piketty’s suggestions. Even the VVD, with its reputation as the party of big business, forms part of this leftward turn. In its election platform, it calls for a government that ‘actively corrects the excesses of capitalism’.
The fact that this shift encompasses all the mainstream parties however has made it difficult for the left to turn economic policy into a central campaigning issue. Instead, the pandemic has pushed everything else into the background. The VVD has been able to bank on the heightened stature of Rutte as head of the nation in a time of crisis. His Covid press conferences have been far more effective in reaching the broader public than the inconclusive election debates. Even the benefits scandal has hardly touched his fatherly aura. It appears that the centre-right electorate is not that concerned by the fortunes of people dependent on benefits.
The fundamental question for the future is whether the broader economic policy shift is a temporary improvisation or a long-term change in economic thinking. There is a good chance that once the immediate fallout of the pandemic has been overcome, there will be a return to the politics of the past. The present shift is only possible because Brussels has suspended the rules for public investment and the Stability and Growth Pact; yet it is also possible that present economic heterodoxies will create a new norm, with European budgeting rules renegotiated accordingly. Amid this apparent social democratic shift in a historically right-wing landscape, it is easy to forget that during the past decade, when the Dutch left was electorally stronger, the policies it favoured were far less radical than at present. Though tomorrow’s vote will return the VVD to power, perhaps that fact provides some cause for cautious optimism.
Things were expected to be bad, but no one expected them to be this bad. The VVD and the progressive-liberals (D66) emerged as the big winners in the Dutch elections on Wednesday, with roughly 22% and 15% of the vote respectively. Sitting prime minister and VVD party leader Mark Rutte returns for a fourth term, and is set to become the longest-serving PM in Dutch history.
Meanwhile, the Dutch left suffered a historic defeat, winning a mere 15% of the vote between them, the lowest result since universal suffrage was introduced a century ago. Apparently, many left-wing voters had voted strategically for D66. Making matters worse, far-right parties had a decent showing, banking on the pandemic protest vote. Many on the left are now reconciling themselves to life in a solidly rightwing country.
Read on: Adam Przeworski, ‘Social Democracy as a Historical Phenomenon’, NLR I/122.