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Dutch election exposes fragility of mainstream
March 13, 2017 / 11:18 AM / in 8 months

Dutch election exposes fragility of mainstream

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - A brash politician with a distinctive quiff uses incendiary rhetoric to gain a popular following. His nativist message chimes with the anti-elite mood across the developed world. As the election nears, pundits and pollsters insist he cannot win. Does this sound familiar?

Maverick Dutch politician Geert Wilders poses for photographs inside the Dutch Parliament in The Hague October 21, 2004. REUTERS/Jerry Lampen

Geert Wilders hopes the parallels with Donald Trump will extend further when voters in the Netherlands cast their ballots on Wednesday. The firebrand leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) is trying to channel the same forces that propelled the reality-TV tycoon to the White House. But the international obsession with the “Dutch Trump” misunderstands Wilders’ clout. It also obscures political shifts that are undermining his country’s reputation for stable and consensual government.

Opinion polls show Wilders vying with Prime Minister Mark Rutte to lead the largest political party in the Dutch lower house. Neither will come close to commanding a majority in the 150-seat chamber, where seats are allocated in proportion to the number of votes cast. But the biggest party generally makes the first attempt to form a government.

That would be a huge endorsement for Wilders, who advocates closing mosques and has promised to crack down on “Moroccan scum”. A diplomatic row with Turkey, which saw protesters clash with police in Rotterdam on Sunday after the Dutch government barred Turkish ministers from speaking at a rally, could give him a pre-election boost.

But even if the 53-year-old comes out on top, he would struggle to form a government since that requires multiple parties to compromise. All the large political groups have ruled out joining any coalition of which he is part.

And despite attempts to align himself with the political earthquakes that struck the United Kingdom and United States last year, Wilders’ is hardly a new face. He has spent 18 years in parliament. This will be his fourth election as leader of the party he controls.

Many voters appear to be tiring of his campaign, which consists mainly of a one-page manifesto and a hyperactive Twitter feed. If Wilders gathers 15 percent of the vote, that would be no better than his performance in 2010, when the PVV came third. It is also short of the 17 percent won by a party led by Pim Fortuyn at the 2002 election, which was held nine days after the charismatic populist was assassinated by an environmental activist.

The more important trend is a fragmentation of political support in the Netherlands. On current projections, no party will command more than 30 seats in parliament after the election. That is a huge shift, even for a system which encourages fringe groups: this year, voters can choose between about two dozen entities, including the Animal Party, the Pirate Party, and the Non-voters.

Back in the 1980s, the three largest political parties consistently gathered more than 80 percent of the vote. The top three this year are barely expected to scrape together half that amount. (See graphic: tmsnrt.rs/2n3ZuFn)

The immediate cause for the political splintering is disillusionment with the governing coalition, which combines Rutte’s liberal VVD party and the centre-left Labour Party. After the euro zone crisis, the pair pushed through spending cuts to shrink the budget deficit and reduce government debt. Growth is now picking up again. But many voters are unhappy about what they see as a declining quality of life and the expansion of temporary and part-time work. Barring a dramatic change of heart - many voters are still undecided - the coalition partners will lose more than half their seats.

Forming a new government will therefore be tricky. At least four parties may be needed to provide the 76 seats required for a majority. The last attempt to assemble such an unwieldy coalition was in the 1970s.That points to an extended period of limbo during which the current administration will act in a caretaker capacity. Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem recently told Reuters this arrangement could continue for up to four years. Once installed, the coalition will be vulnerable to political crises. Paralysis and instability in one of its founding members also bodes ill for the European Union’s ability to take decisive measures to improve cooperation in areas like defence.

For those fretting about the rise of extremist parties in Europe, a ramshackle Dutch coalition might seem preferable to the alternative. Yet in some ways Wilders has already won. Most mainstream Dutch parties have become more hostile to immigration. In an open letter published in January, Rutte instructed citizens to “behave normally or go away”. Over the weekend, most party leaders echoed the prime minister’s hard-line stance on the visiting Turkish ministers. Like the United Kingdom Independence Party’s Nigel Farage, Wilders has managed to shift the political debate without holding power. That, in the end, may be his biggest achievement.

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