The looming elections

Contrary to all expectations the VVD+PvdA Rutte II government is likely to reach the end of its natural life. Elections are slated for 15 March 2017, and it seems likely government will not fall before that date. This would be the first time since 1998 that government survives unscathed until the next regular elections.

Now that all politicians have returned from recess they are starting up their electioneering; not yet with a fully-fledged campaign (that will happen only in February or so), but with positioning their party to go into the elections as a favourite. Most political moves of the next seven months will be aimed squarely at 15 March.

So it’s time for an overview of where we stand. First, the current polls.

Party Polls 12/9/16 change 2012 elections
VVD 25 -16 41
PvdA 10 -28 38
PVV 28 +13 15
SP 16 +1 15
CDA 18 +5 13
D66 16 +4 12
CU 7 +2 5
GL 13 +9 4
SGP 3 0 3
PvdD 4 +2 2
50Plus 8 +6 2
DENK 1 +1 -
VNL 1 +1 -
PP 0 0 0
Right block 72 +3 69
Left block 55 -14 69

PVV

Is that the PVV of mouth-frothingly angry anti-Muslim Geert Wilders at the top of the polls with 28 seats? Yup; he’s been the virtual largest party for quite a while now.

However, it’s worth noting that, while he has been polling between 30 and 35 seats for about nine months now, all polls released in September saw him drop by a few seats. It’s still early, and things can change, and he dropped much earlier than I expected and could bounce back, but it shows that a Wilders victory is by no means guaranteed.

Besides, even if he becomes the largest, who will want to form a coalition with him? The VVD and the SGP. And that’s it. And even the VVD might change its mind, depending on how the campaign goes.

PvdA and the left

It will surprise no one that VVD and PvdA are slated to go down by a lot of seats. Voters of neither party were excited about the resumption of the Purple left-right coalition, and especially among PvdA voters there’s the feeling that their party again caved in to the right wing. Thus, while both parties are down, the PvdA is down a lot more than the VVD.

In fact, the left block as a whole is down. SP, GL, PvdA, and D66 combined would get only 55 seats according to the polls, a loss of 14. Still, the situation is less dire than it seems. First of all, respondents who say they won’t vote aren’t counted at all, and I wouldn’t be surprised if of these non-voters a disproportionate part are disappointed PvdA voters, who, once actual elections really come near, will decide to vote after all — though perhaps for another party on the left.

Second, quite a few older PvdA voters will have gone over to 50Plus, the party for the elderly. It’s unclear what these voters will do once they’re actually in the voting booth, but it’s not inconceivable that some of them will return to the left block.

Historically, 55 seats for the left block would be a devastating blow, and in the last 30 years a score below 64 occurred only once: 49 seats in the Fortuyn-dominated 2002 elections. The 2017 elections do not seem to be quite in this disaster category, so I expect the left to grow over the next seven months.

Still, right now it doesn’t look like the 2017 elections are going to be brilliant for the left, either. So let’s call it 65 seats, a net loss of 4. Sounds about right.

One more note: increasingly, D66 wants to break loose from the left block in order to become a true centre party. Still, as you see I still count it as belonging to the left. After the elections, once our political scientists have calculated the exact voter migration paths, we could revisit this question and see if a large number of VVD voters have shifted to D66. If so, there might be good reason to count D66 as a centre party. If not, that proves it’s still a left-wing party at heart.

Leadership

65 seats is a prediction for the left block as a whole, mind you. The PvdA has an additional problem that the other parties don’t have: leadership. Who will be at the top of the PvdA list by the time of the elections?

The other parties have already nominated their leaders, but the PvdA has been in a state of indecision for months. Current party leader Samsom is tainted by his cooperation with the VVD, and while he’s undoubtedly very smart, he is from the centrist Purple wing of the party, which doesn’t sit well with the voters who want a more clearly leftist course.

Two major challengers have been floated: social affairs minister Asscher, and Rotterdam mayor Aboutaleb. According to polls taken well before the summer holidays, Aboutaleb would be a pretty popular choice, causing VVD leader and current prime minister Rutte the most trouble because he’s seen as a little more left-wing than the other candidates — although I’m not sure this is actually warranted.

Besides, Aboutaleb was born in Morocco, and quite apart from the effect that might have on Dutch-Moroccan voters, it would send Geert Wilders into a state of frenzy, which could conceivably end badly for the populist.

However, shortly after that spate of good polls, Aboutaleb announced he would not run against Samsom for the party leadership. Note the careful choice of words. Should Samsom decide he won’t run for a new term, well, anything could happen. For now everybody assumes Samsom will run, and that would mean Aboutaleb won’t. Or would it?

As to Asscher, his problem is that nobody is quite certain what the difference with Samsom would be. He was mentioned for the leadership back in 2012 when Cohen stepped down — and Asscher was alderman in Amsterdam while Cohen was mayor. Still, the only reason to go with Asscher is Samsom becoming untenable even in the eyes of the centrist wing, which isn’t quite the case yet.

There are a few minor candidates, but so far it doesn’t seem like any of them has legs. But that could change.

Candidacies close on 24th of October, and if there is more than one candidate there will be an internal election around the end of November. So we’ll see a lot of speculation in about a month or so.

One more note: GL has a new leader, Jesse Klaver. It’s clear that he takes his inspiration from Canadese prime minister Justin Trudeau, displaying the same mix of moderate left-wing policy and personal charisma. Now personal charisma is distrusted in Dutch politics (see also Wilders, G.) but it seems GL is going to try to go this route anyway, and so far the polls agree.

Point is: if the PvdA nominates a bland centrist party leader, Klaver might become truly interesting for social-democratic voters. This complicates the internal PvdA calculus, and is one more reason why Aboutaleb might be not such a bad choice.

New parties

The 2012 elections returned 11 parties with seats in parliament. All these 11 parties are expected to win seats in 2017 as well. In addition three new parties have a chance to enter parliament, and I expect at least one of them to succeed. An election returning exactly the same slate of parties as the previous one is a rare occurrence in Dutch politics: after World War II it happened only twice, in 2010 and in 1952. Change is more likely than continuity.

Two more rules I found: new parties are more likely to enter parliament with two or more seats than with one, and each individual pollster must report one or more seats for a party before it enters parliament. That last hurdle is currently met by none of the new parties.

The first newcomer tried in 2012 as well: the Pirate Party. We haven’t heard a lot from the Pirates since the 2012 elections, but especially if no clear leader emerges on the left they might have a chance. Since the Dutch system is especially welcoming to new, small parties, it might be that the Pirates net their first national seats in Den Haag instead of Berlin or Stockholm.

Next is VNL (Voor Nederland; For the Netherlands), which split from the PVV during Wilders’s trouble in 2014. Wilders recovered quite nicely, and is undoubtedly in the lead on the extreme right, but VNL keeps popping into and out of the polls, so it’s not a total failure like other Wilders competitors. Still, I expect Wilders to suck the oxygen from the extreme right, so VNL won’t do all that well.

Finally, there’s DENK (Think), a PvdA split-off. Two Dutch-Turkish MPs split from the social-democrats on the (VVD-inspired) immigration policies of Asscher. In May 2016 they suddenly got a lot of press, but the problem is they are trying to achieve two rather conflicting goals.

First, they want to be a party for non-white Dutch, any kind of non-white Dutch, and as a token of that a black TV personality joined DENK. (Personally I had never heard of her, but then I don’t watch TV.) On the whole this might succeed, and might even be a good idea.

However, since the two founders are of Turkish descent, and just about all of their voters are as well, they also tried to defend the Turkish AKP of Erdo─čan and the total lack of an Armenian genocide back in 1916. Especially after the Turkish coup attempt this summer these standpoints have become problematic. I have no idea how non-Turkish non-whites think about these things, but they certainly won’t show the energy and passion of the Turks.

Also, Turkey is pretty unpopular right now, to the point where DENK could be viewed as a sort of fifth column thanks to the meddlers in Ankara, who continue to try to use the Turks in Western Europe as an extension of Turkey and the AKP party.

Non-Turks, and especially whites, might think twice before being associated with DENK, and that might scuttle the party’s (slim) coalition chances. All in all I assume DENK will get Dutch-Turkish votes only — especially if Aboutaleb becomes PvdA party leader.

Still, statistically speaking it’s likely at least one of these three parties will make it to parliament — or possibly a fourth, as-yet underreported party.

Issues: Health care

The issue uppermost in voters’ minds right now is health care. Immigration is bumped into sixth place (although number two, more money for police and defence, could be seen as immigration-related). According to the Peil.nl poll, 72% of Dutch want free-marketism out of our health care system, and even the right-wing parties are starting to tack slightly to the left on this issue.

There are a few interesting points here. First, immigration is relatively unimportant right now because of the EU deal with Turkey, which pretty much stopped the flow of Syrian refugees. If Turkey would cancel the deal, though, things would change considerably.

Second, the fact that everything is quiet on the immigration front could explain why Wilders is losing seats right now. His topic is not being rated very highly, and he remains chaotic and untrustworthy on any economic issue, so he loses. If the EU deal is cancelled that might change.

Finally, although less free-marketism in health care sounds like a left-wing talking point, the fact the the right-wing parties are also moving in that direction makes this less of a unique left-wing point, even though it ups the chances of change actually coming.

Conclusion

Now you know about the most important currents in Dutch politics seven months out from the elections. The left is supposed to be on the defense, and that could actually be true. The left-wing parties certainly have more than their fair share of personnel and issue problems right now.

On the other hand, we have seven more months to go. A lot could happen in that time.

<— More Brexit thoughts | Dutch Pirates defect to intellectual right-wing party —>

This is the political blog of Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist, consultant, and trainer, in Amsterdam. It’s a hobby blog where he follows Dutch politics for the benefit of those twelve foreigners that are interested in such matters, as well as his Dutch readers.

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