The populists in the Netherlands

The Dutch elections are on 15th of March, and in the current international political climate they could take on an importance that goes well beyond our national parliament. Pundits and commentators might (ab)use the results to make predictions on the upcoming French and German elections (which will take place in April/May and September, respectively). So let’s take a look at the current situation, starting on the right, where the action is.

For the past two months Geert Wilders’s PVV has done well in the polls, and it would surprise no one if they are in fact the largest party in parliament after the elections — let’s say 30 to 35 of the 150 seats.

Point is: what does that mean?

The populists in Russian pay will no doubt cheer and conclude that France and Germany will also fall to the anti-European forces. Expect this story to feature prominently in the extreme-right propaganda channels and on Facebook (not that there’s any difference between the two these days).

A right-wing coalition

The truth is more complicated, and boils down to this question: even if Wilders becomes the largest party, who will want to form a coalition with him? The answer increasingly seems to be: no one.

Until about a week ago, the list parties that would be willing to enter into a coalition with Wilders consisted of two: right-wing VVD and ultra-orthodox calvinist SGP. Such a coalition will not have a majority in parliament. The VVD hovers around 25 seats, and the SGP will get 4. So let’s give them 60 between the three of them. That’s 16 less than necessary.

Thus, the job of deflecting Wilders would fall to christian-democratic CDA. Currently, as far as I know, the CDA officially excludes Wilders, after the profound trauma of the Rutte I government (2010-2012), consisting of VVD and CDA and supported by Wilders. The CDA was never happy with this government, and its sudden fall in 2012, caused by Wilders walking away when he didn’t get what he wanted, made the CDA livid, to the point where they excluded any coalition with Wilders — as far as I know the first time the CDA excluded any party. But the CDA is nothing without power, so I expected the christian-democrats to relent and be drawn into a coalition with Wilders in 2017.

So I considered a right-wing coalition with PVV, VVD, CDA, and SGP a distinct possibility. Until yesterday, when VVD leader and prime minister Rutte changed the equation by categorically stating he would not enter into a coalition with Wilders. Now that was unexpected, and it reduces the likelihood of Wilders having any actual say in anything rather dramatically.

The Senate and the angry elderly

Two points need to be made here. First, even if we’d get that four-party right-wing coalition, it would have only 36 of the 75 seats in the Senate. It would need two more.

Rutte had the same problem in his current coalition with centre-left PvdA, and usually found the votes he needed. Number one suspect after the elections would be 50Plus, the party of formerly-social-democratic angry old people, which has positioned itself on the populist side of the spectrum. Still, in practice that would mean a five-party coalition, which is not the most stable political construct imaginable, and besides pretty soon after the election 50Plus will fall apart in rivalling elderly factions — that happened the last time, too. So all in all a right-wing coalition would rest on shaky foundations.

The prime-minister race

Second, Rutte’s remarks are primarily to be judged in the light of a potential prime-minister race.

Briefly, a prime-minister race pits one right-wing party leader against one left-wing party leader in a race for the prime-ministership. Traditionally the largest party gets first dibs on forming a coalition, and the largest coalition party gets the prime-ministership. Thus, if the VVD were to become the largest party it would initiate coalition negotiations, and once they are succesfully concluded its party leader, Rutte, would become prime minister. The same would go if a left-wing party would become largest — say, PvdA or GL.

Therefore, the VVD and its left-wing competitor would be able to tell right- and left-wing voters to vote for them or risk the other one becoming the prime minister. This happened in 2012, Samson vs. Rutte, and in 2003, Bos vs. Balkenende. (It also happened in the 2015 Israeli elections.)

The point of this entire mechanism is to steal votes from the other parties in your own block. CDA, and, crucially, PVV voters would think twice, consider the bogeyman of a left-wing prime minister, and decide to cast a strategic vote for the VVD, even though that party is not their first choice. The same would happen on the left.

The problem, of course, is that currently the VVD is not the largest party on the right — the PVV is. In order to become the largest Rutte has to make clear that a vote for the PVV is essentially wasted: if you want right-wing policies, the PVV is not the way to go since it won’t be in power: even the VVD doesn’t want to form a coalition with Wilders.

A secondary problem is that currently it’s unclear who the left-wing candidate for prime minister would be. Also, whoever becomes the left-wing candidate would rather have Wilders as an opponent than Rutte, since Wilders generates way more distaste on the left. We’ll get back to this when we take a look at the left.

With all this in mind I’m not entirely sure how to take Rutte’s remark. Although it clearly benefits him in the short term, after the election he may point to the changed situation and start talks with Wilders anyway. On the other hand, I don’t see Rutte, or any VVD luminary, willing to serve under prime minister Wilders.

The tiny right

Finally, let’s take a look at the tiny right before closing off this chapter. Right now no less than three populist-but-not-Wilders parties are running in the elections. I believe that between the three of them they will cost Wilders about one, possibly two seats, but that none of them will win any seats.

Back in 2014 two PVV MPs broke away from Wilders and founded their own party, VNL (Voor Nederland; For the Netherlands). They needed a well-known face to head their party list, and found it in Jan Roos, a shock-jock journalist and one of the two instigators of the Ukraine referendum of last April. Initially, it seemed they were on course to get one, maybe two seats.

But then the other instigator of the Ukraine referendum, publicist Thierry Baudet, got jealous and started his own party, FvD (Forum voor Democratie; Forum for Democracy). Let the infighting commence: there aren’t that many angry populist voters who don’t like Wilders either to begin with, and splitting them over two parties is not the road to success — whatever your definition of success may be.

And then Geen Peil, the original home of Dutch online shock-jock journalism, also founded a party, unoriginally named GeenPeil. The founding principle seems to be that the party has no principles; instead their MPs will vote however the party membership directs them to vote. That may sound very democratic, but it will result in the GeenPeil MPs (of which there will be zero) to be taken over by loud-mouthed populists, anyway.

In any case, while one non-Wilders extreme right party might have been a good idea in order to split the vote, three is overkill. My prediction is than none of them will make it into parliament, although, as I said, they might cost Wilders a seat or two.

<— The PvdA leadership race | Dutch elections: the left —>

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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