Analysis: Dutch elections signal an uncertain future for the left

The recent elections in the Netherlands marked another milestone in the decline of centre left politics in the country, and the rise to prominence of extreme far right parties. 

Dutch parliamentarians are elected by Proportional Representation on a national list. This leads to a great deal of fragmentation, and the generous representation of minority parties – there will be 17 present in the next parliament. In the 2021 election, there were at least 5 parties making a pitch for the left or progressive vote. But the centre left as a whole saw its representation in parliament halved. 

The right wing People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) emerged once again as the largest party, increasing their representation by 2 seats, taking them to 35 out of 150. This is despite the fact that the early election was triggered by a massive government scandal, in which it was found that tens of thousands of people had been unfairly accused of benefit fraud and, in many cases, financially ruined in the process. This process racially profiled residents with dual nationality, part of the wider Dutch institutionalised racism towards minority groups.

The result was widely taken to mean that Mark Rutte will take up a fourth term as Prime Minister, a post he has occupied since 2010, potentially making him the longest serving Dutch leader if he serves out his term, and one of the longest serving in the whole EU. However, the process of negotiation between the parties to form a viable coalition has been thrown into disarray after Rutte narrowly survived a vote of no confidence in parliament. This was triggered by evidence that he was involved in discussions about moving a campaigning MP who played a role in uncovering the benefits scandal to a role “elsewhere”, something which he denied. As a result, the negotiations look set to prove more difficult, potentially taking months, and Rutte’s position as head of government looks less secure.  

However, the ongoing investigation into the scandal proved no obstacle for the VVD in the election. which has spent the last decade perfecting an appeal based on a combination of neoliberal economics, Dutch nationalism and pandering to social reactionaries. Their leadership has been associated with sharp austerity both domestically and across the EU as the Netherlands has led the block of “frugals” – wealthier countries opposed to pan-European action to address the economic crises of Southern Europe, or more recently, COVID. 

The VVD’s brushing off of their ruining of thousands of households was aided and abetted by a Dutch media that focused minimal attention on the scandal as part of the campaign. Instead, the focus has been on “leadership” and which party can make the most “responsible” government. Debate within such parameters holds obvious advantages for a long term incumbent such as Rutte, who portrays himself as a safe pair of hands. 

The second largest party emerging from the elections are the liberal D66, who seem to have captured the lion’s share of progressive voters. This is also despite the fact that D66 were a partner in the last coalition government, and were also implicated in the scandal that brought it down. Much of this support may be due to the threat of the far right, which has caused voters who wish to stop the agenda of the several extremist parties opting to vote tactically for a large party and coalition partner that can present itself as “progressive” in contrast. By this logic, voters would rather the VVD took liberals as a coalition partner than the far right. D66 now looks set to continue its role of propping up a right wing VVD government. They were joined in parliament by the new smaller liberal and pro-EU party Volt, which enjoys wealthy backing and received widespread favourable media coverage.

The success of liberal parties in capturing the progressive vote is also a reflection of the fact that left has abdicated the responsibility of confronting racism and the other prejudices fuelling far right success. Parties such as the Socialist Party have attempted to avoid the discussion entirely, instead focusing on domestic public services – or worse have pandered to anti-immigrant prejudice. As a result, voters concerned by the rising threat of Islamophobic and racist parties don’t see them as credible opposition.

The left vote was split between Labour (PvDA), the Greens (GroenLinks), the Socialist Party (SP), Party for the Animals (Partij voor de Dieren, PvdD) and newcomers Bij1. The extreme fragmentation of Dutch politics means that governments must always be formed by coalitions, and mainstream media debate often focuses on what parties are willing to do to become effective coalition partners, such as which principles they wish to compromise. As a result, the Dutch left has in many cases lost an understanding of the value of opposition, and how to build progressive forces from outside government. Instead, they have emphasised their willingness to work with parties to their right –diluting the politics that would make them a distinctive option to vote for in the process. Although in its post-war history the Netherlands has had several governments led by Labour, it has never been governed by an all-left coalition. Historically Labour and Christian Democrats alternated power, and governments were built on alliances that included liberal and conservative parties. 

Dutch politics was fundamentally reshaped in the early 2000s by the Islamophobic backlash to the 9/11 attacks, and the subsequent political intervention of anti-immigration maverick Pim Fortuyn. Fortuyn had previously been a Labour politician and associated with the left, but throughout the 1990s embraced a neoliberal and extreme Islamophobic outlook, calling Islam “a backward culture”, for Dutch borders to be closed to Muslims and for a “cold war” with Islamic countries. “The Netherlands is Full” became his rallying cry. A charismatic figure, Fortuyn was also able to appeal to more liberal voters on the basis that he was a gay man, and claimed his attacks on Islam were part of a struggle for LGBT rights. Founding his own party, Pim Fortuyn List (LPF) in 2001, its rapid rise transformed the traditional Dutch party system, and put Islamophobic concerns at the heart of Dutch politics. At the height of his celebrity, Fortuyn was assassinated by a left wing environmentalist, the first political assassination in the Netherlands since 1672 (excluding World War Two). 

LPF subsequently stormed the 2002 elections, taking second place as a newcomer party – something previously unheard of. After the assassination of the leader that had brought them together, the party collapsed not long afterwards. But the space they opened up in Dutch politics has remained, with anti-migrant and Islamophobia remaining key electoral reference points. This is reflected in the success of the far right, and indeed of the VVD, who have also foundsuccess by aping this rhetoric. 

Once again, the Dutch media played a role in this shift. Having been shaken by the unforseen rise of Fortuyn, many came to argue that the media had played a role in his rise by not previously representing the Islamophobic and racist views he put forward. As a result, there was a move towards extreme “neutrality” in coverage, and the platforming of ever more outrageous viewpoints. Proponents argued that this would expose the far right’s arguments and delegitimise them. Needless to say, it has had the opposite of the intended effect. 

Faced with this challenge, left forces have made some profound mistakes. Rather than confronting reactionary and racist ideas head-on to provide an alternative, many on the Dutch left have instead sought to swim with the tide, presenting themselves as economically left wing and in favour of public services, while at the same time posing as cultural conservatives and indulging in wrong-headed ideas about the impact of migration on the Dutch working class. These attempts at triangulation have proved largely unsuccessful, with voters opting for the “full fat” version of Islamophobia and right wing populism. 

In addition to this, an appeal based on left wing economics and social conservatism is rooted in a misunderstanding of where the left vote has gone. Analysis suggests that under the conditions of extreme polarisation around socio-cultural issues that has occurred in recent years, the traditional Labour vote has gone less to the far-right populists than it has to other parties with a more progressive policy profile on social issues. This may go some way to explaining the success of D66 in 2021, a party that combines a progressive socio-cultural agenda with right wing economics. 

“…left forces have made some profound mistakes. Rather than confronting reactionary and racist ideas head-on to provide an alternative, many on the Dutch left have instead sought to swim with the tide, presenting themselves as economically left wing and in favour of public services, while at the same time posing as cultural conservatives and indulging in wrong-headed ideas about the impact of migration on the Dutch working class.”

Dutch Labour are now an advanced example of “pasokification” – the process that has seen traditional governing social democratic parties across Europe collapse as they fail to offer a progressive alternative to right wing management of the capitalist crisis. After years of alternating between more radical rhetoric in opposition followed by participation in right wing governments, by 2017 voters had had enough. Labour had in government participated in brutal cuts to the Netherlands’ privatised health infrastructure, having previously campaigned on a promise to do the opposite. It was a Nick Clegg moment for the PvdA, and they suffered the largest electoral defeat in Dutch history, dropping down into single digit figures. 

In the 2000s, the decline in PvdA vote was largely due to the rise of alternative left wing options – the Greens and the Socialist Party. However, both parties have now suffered similar electoral reversals, with GroenLinks losing support particularly to D66 in the 2021 election. In 2017 the Greens had had a successful election, but their subsequent attempts to portray themselves as good potential coalition partners made them virtually indistinguishable from the larger liberal party present in government. 

The Socialist Party was part of a wave of left-of-social-democracy parties that found success in the 2000s in the wake of the more traditional left parties’ capitulation to third-way neoliberalism. Starting as a small Maoist party in the 1970s, the SP gradually built a strong base by being rooted in local community work, which eventually paid off electorally. Veterans of the European Social Forum will remember their participation in the anti-capitalist movement of the 2000s. However, as they have grown, they have suffered from the common problems of the Dutch left discussed above. In emphasising their readiness to form a coalition, the SP have abandoned their community focus and compromised on many positions. Worse, they do not seek to oppose the rampant racism dominating Dutch political discourse, instead pandering to ideas that immigration is responsible for the impoverishment of the Dutch working class. 

Prior to the election the party was engaged in purging its more left wing members, notably suspending their entire youth wing, Rood, due to supposed “communist infiltration”. The party’s attempts at respectability politics have proved unsuccessful, and the decline in their vote in this election continues a decade long trajectory of decreasing vote share. 

As a result of the decline of the left’s vote share, there is now no longer a largest left parliamentary force, but three middling-to-small ones, each on around 6 – 8% support. Almost all the parties of the left have responded to a wave of right wing extremism with a typically Dutch response – conciliation and compromise. In a move reminiscent of Blue Labour in the UK or the US “Dirtbag left”, the Socialist Party, the PvDA and smaller parties such as PvdD have sought to triangulate the growing right wing mood in society, thinking if they pander to “legitimate concerns” of such voters they will be able to win them over on the basis of a mildly redistributive domestic agenda. Many have also embraced “Nexit” – Dutch exit from the European Union – without any corresponding analysis of how much of the campaign is driven by opposition to support for poorer European countries, and to migration.

However, similarly to other parts of the global north where such an approach has been attempted, it has failed to produce results. The failure to clearly differentiate left politics from the right’s talking points in the end only allows anti-migrant and reactionary ideas to grow. It is based on an outdated and idealised vision of the working class, and who makes up the constituency for the left.  There is a significant voting bloc concerned by the Netherlands’ slide to reaction, but, with exceptions, the left does not seek to mobilise them. It is perhaps unsurprising then that their relatively weak social democratic offer has been unable to win votes that instead have gone to D66 and other liberal forces. As a strategy for power, the results are clearly indicated by the historically bad outcome for the left in the 2021 election.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum, despite movement of votes within the far-right bloc, the 2021 election marked the continued rise of racist and xenophobic parties. Perhaps the most well known of these internationally is the People’s Party (PVV) of Geert Wilders, the bleached-blonde darling of the English Defence League. Wilders split from the VVD in 2006 over his opposition to Turkey joining the EU, and has since built an extreme platform calling for the suppression of Islam, including banning the Qur’an (which he has compared to Mein Kampf), stopping the construction of mosques, banning entry to the Netherlands from “Islamic countries” and stripping voting rights from Dutch citizens with dual citizenship (often Turkey or Morocco). 

Wilders has been serially compared to Trump, and not only because of their similarly unusual hair styles – his success is built off his individual public persona and extreme and polarising statements made via social media. The party as a whole is extremely dependent on Wilders’ Twitter account. 

In 2021, the PVV actually lost 3 seats, but still remained the third largest party in parliament. Their losses give progressives little to celebrate however, as these votes have largely moved to even more extreme parties of the far right. The first of these, the Forum for Democracy (FvD) is led by flamboyant edgelord Thierry Baudet. Where Wilders is a cruder, more lumpen figure, Baudet presents himself as a suave intellectual, a philosophy quoting member of the elite, able to appeal to the snobbishness of voters turned off by Wilders’ coarse language. However, the supposedly sophisticated ideas he promotes are, when the dog whistle terminology is cut through, nothing but a rotten melange of traditional far right bigotry. As well as sharing the PVV’s extreme anti-migrant stance, the FvD is also in favour of eugenics and extreme misogyny. Baudet has written of how women “do not excel in occupations” and crave to be “dominated, overpowered and overwhelmed” by men. Unlike the PVV, which officially has no members except for Wilders, and typically puts forward one-page manifestos, FvD has built a substantial party organisation, with thousands of members. 

Thierry Baudet

Despite achieving runaway success at their first election in 2019, the FvD have had a turbulent 2020. The party has been engulfed in scandal due to the leaking of Baudet and others’ text messages, which contained even more explicitly racist and antisemitic comments than he had previously committed to in public, including praise for the mass murders of Anders Breivik and the Christchurch mosque shooter. This led to turmoil, as party figures demanded Baudet’s resignation, which he at first gave and then retracted. At one point the locks on party headquarters were changed to bar his access. 

Predictions that this would lead to the collapse of the FvD were however, sadly, premature. A breakaway group, JA21 (“Right Answer”), which eschewed the explicit public racism revealed in Baudet’s messages, while still putting forward an almost identical policy platform, was able to gain 3 seats in their first ever election. Baudet and his loyalists meanwhile still increased their representation from 3 to 8 seats. As Dutch socialist Alex de Jong notes, “The Netherlands has not had so much outright racism and antisemitism in its parliament since the war.”

The Dutch far right presents an interesting case study for learning about similar post- or quasi-fascist formations around the world. All three parties (PVV, FvD, JA21) attempt to portray themselves as democratic, calling for greater direct democracy and direct election of government positions. FvD rose to prominence through campaigning in a referendum against a trade deal with Ukraine (the party takes a pro-Russia position on geopolitics). However, this is of course coupled with a very strict drawing of the line of who is a Dutch citizen and should be allowed rights. What they have clearly exposed is that the former colonial power and major slave trading nation remains ideologically dominated by white supremacism, despite the outraged protestations of white Nederlanders and the country’s international facade as a haven of liberal progressivism. 

Under Rutte, the Dutch government’s response to the COVID crisis has been lacklustre, in line with other countries governed by similar right wing administrations (the UK, US, Brazil etc.) As a result, at several points throughout the pandemic, the Netherlands has been the COVID hotspot of Europe. Dutch culture is particularly individualist and work-focused, and the government has proved consistently reluctant to take necessary public health measures that might impact on businesses and employers. This is also reflected in high numbers of people with symptoms not getting tested, and continuing to work. 

While surrounding countries locked down, the Netherlands remained relatively open for much longer periods. Their policy of “Intelligent Lockdown” (a name which denoted precisely the opposite) emphasised the responsibility of “think and act like adults” – leading many to continue life as normal. Wearing masks only became compulsory on the 1st of December, months behind the rest of Europe, and after their effectiveness was repeatedly questioned by Dutch health officials. Severe shortages in testing capacity, combined with the failure of the national test and trace app, have now run into failures in vaccination capacity. The Netherlands severely lags behind other EU countries in rates of vaccination. At the time of writing, 16, 662 people have died in the Netherlands from COVID. 

Also similar to other right wing administrations around the world, the contradictory and confusing messages coming from the government have only fuelled the growth of conspiratorial and far right forces looking to profit from the chaos. Unsurprisingly for a country with a resurgent far right movement, anti-vax mobilisations and ‘Plan-demic’ conspiracies, have been rampant. As the government was forced to abandon its laissez faire attitude and move towards a harder lockdown at the end of 2020, this only intensified. Riots have taken place in Amsterdam and Den Haag, dispersed by police using water cannon. COVID testing centres have been vandalised, with windows smashed, and there was even one incident in which a centre was actually attacked with a home-made bomb.

Baudet and the far-right FvD embraced this movement, becoming ever more extreme in their conspiracist and anti-vax rhetoric throughout the campaign. Many thought this was a disastrous move, as it cut against the grain of majority opinion in the Netherlands. But the party had successfully identified a mobilised and militant minority and, without any illusions of being elected to power, were able to activate this minority for electoral gain. This is surely a factor in the FvD’s continued support in the recent election. 

Despite the overwhelmingly bleak picture of Dutch politics, the election did present some points of light. The Dutch parliament is now more diverse than ever before, with 27 people of colour having been elected. Prominent among these is Sylvana Simons, leader of the new party Bij1 (“Together”). Bij1 puts forward a left policy agenda, such as calling for a fully public health system, nationalisation of major industries, greater worker control over enterprises, 30 hour working week, transformation of the military into a civilian aid force and withdrawal from NATO. However, in contrast to much of the Dutch left, it combines this with firm opposition to all forms of discrimination, including racism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia, calling for the closure of the gender wage gap and reparations for the Netherlands’ participation in the slave trade. Several of its activists have been prominent in the campaign against the grossly racist caricature of Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), a hot button culture war issue for Dutch white supremacists. 

Bij1 is for the time being a small force, with support concentrated in the major cities, and particularly in areas with strong black communities (it also gains significant electoral support from the Netherlands ongoing colonial possessions in the Caribbean). But following a parliamentary term in which there were zero black women in parliament, the election of Bij1’s leader Simons is something of a historic moment. Significant challenges lie ahead for a party confronting a national political discourse that is shockingly racist, and in translating its programme into real policy change. But while other parties have chased respectability in a political mainstream that is rapidly galloping far to the right, Bij1 have recognised the importance of building a left presence on a principled basis, even if it means speaking for a minority from the position of opposition.

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