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Did the Dutch elections amount to a defeat of populism?

21st March 2017

Geert Wilders may have performed poorly in the face of high expectations but his rightwing Freedom party was not the only populist actor

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Wouter Bos
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It seemed everybody was watching us. Would the Dutch Mozart, Geert Wilders, win the Dutch elections? Would populism beat traditional politics again, for the third time in a row after Brexit and Trump? Foreign reporters all over the place, pieces on the front pages of every relevant foreign newspaper.

For us it was both expected and hilarious at the same time. Expected because we understood, of course, how a possible victory for Geert Wilders’ right-populist Freedom party would be seen as another victory of populism over mainstream politics. But certainly hilarious as well because of the many misunderstandings about the Dutch electoral system and the role Wilders and his party play; the biggest misunderstanding being the assumption that a Wilders victory would mean he would become prime minister.

So just to be sure, a short explanation of the way it works in the Netherlands. In the Netherlands we vote for parties through a purely proportional system: 150 seats in parliament are divided over political parties according to the number of votes obtained. We could choose from 28 parties. A party needs less than 1% of the vote, approximately 50,000 votes, to obtain a seat in parliament. We ended up with 13 parties in parliament.

This particular structure of the Dutch political system means that winning the elections may either mean a party becomes the biggest or that a party just gains seats. It often happens a party becomes the biggest but loses seats; or that it gains seats but does not become the biggest. And becoming the biggest does not guarantee the prime minister job or even participation in government; it all depends on who actually manages to build a coalition of parties, together holding more than 75 seats.

It was, right from the start, improbable that Wilders would get more than 75 seats by himself; no political party ever managed to achieve that and even in polls Wilders never got more than 30-40 seats, in elections never more than 24. A possible Wilders victory would at best have meant he would have gained some seats and maybe his party would have become the biggest. But even then, already before the elections, it was clear he did not have any allies, nobody would want to enter a coalition with him. Exit ‘Prime Minister’ Wilders.

In the end Wilders won five seats and moved his party into 2nd position, moving from 15 to 20 seats. Prime Minister Rutte’s Liberal party lost eight seats and ended up with 33 seats. The social democrats suffered their greatest loss ever and fell from 38 to nine seats, an all-time low. Two liberal progressive parties (The Democrats and Green Left) won seats, the Corbynish Socialist party lost a seat.

One general conclusion about the election is that the left as a whole is weaker than ever. Another conclusion is that the field is fragmented. A clear big party seems to be absent, about six parties all roughly account for between 10 and 20% of the votes. The Animal party has five seats, the Erdogan-friendly party Think got three seats, the 50+ party, defending the interests of the elderly, ends up with four seats. And believe it or not, we could also have voted Jesus Lives! into parliament (but didn’t).

The one big conclusion we read in foreign newspapers however was that not only Wilders was beaten but more general: populism was beaten. The Dutch turned the trend that seemed to grow stronger after Brexit and Trump, this was not the next domino stone falling, there was hope for the German and French elections to come.

Let me just make a few observations regarding that one conclusion: was populism beaten in the Netherlands?

First, the fact that Wilders does not become prime minister is hardly a victory over populism but more a victory over something that was an illusion right from the start.

Second, populist parties did not lose but actually won seats. Not only did Wilders win seats, so did the populist party for the elderly (50+) and the pseudo-intellectual Freedom party-spin off, the Forum for Democracy, that entered parliament with two seats. Add to that the seats of the populist Socialist party and one must conclude populist parties grew 25% from 32 to 40 seats in parliament.

Third, the two centre-right parties (Prime Minister Rutte’s Liberal party and the Christian Democrats) adopted populist views on migration, Islam and Europe in an attempt to keep voters away from Wilders. They were reasonably successful in that but the price that was paid is that Wilders may be beaten but populism became more mainstream.

One of the things we learn from comparing these election results to the American elections and the Brexit referendum, is how important the choice is that is put in front of the voters. Whenever the choice is binary (Trump or Clinton; Brexit or Remain) chances grow for the populists, basically because all discontent flows in the same direction. But as soon as the voter has more choice, populism becomes weaker. This is why we did have a negative vote on the Lisbon Treaty in our 2005 referendum (which became a symbol for all discontent about Europe). And it is why populists did not win the 2017 elections in the Netherlands because the populist vote was spread out over too many parties.

So the particular electoral system in a country does play a very important role in how it accommodates discontent and how it provides chances to populists. In case it provides voters with a binary choice (UK elections; Brexit referendum), populists stand a better chance than when it provides multiple choices (Dutch elections). There is yet another aspect of the parliamentary system that matters here. In the Dutch system of proportional representation, a bit of populist discontent is already enough to enter parliament and be represented. In other more district-oriented parliamentary systems (in France and the UK for example) populist parties may actually end up getting a much higher percentage of votes and still not being represented in parliament or other political institutions. The big question here is of course: what is the better way of dealing with populism? Providing immediate outlet to populist discontent in a system of proportional representation or suppressing it (but not beating it!) in a two- or three-party system?

What else do we learn from the Dutch elections and more in particular, what do we progressives learn from these elections?

One tentative conclusion may be that it seems to be easier for rightwing and conservative parties to copy populist views and thus keep voters away from populist parties than it is for leftwing parties. In the Netherlands, both the Liberals and the Christian Democrats tried this strategy and were relatively successful at it. On the left, both parties that were very pro-Europe and pro-migration (the Progressive Liberals and the Green Left) won seats and both parties that were much more conservative on these issues (the Labour party and the Socialist party) lost seats. Copying populist views does not seem to be a winning strategy for centre-left parties in a multi-party system.

Having said all that, one must also conclude that despite the fact that two progressive parties (and the climate-loving Animal party) won seats, the left as a whole lost seats and has never been as weak as it is now. This is of course at least partially due to the fact that the Dutch Labour party was in government over the past four and a half years and had to take responsibility for many unpopular policies to get the Netherlands out of the crisis; policies that were not expected from social democrats and that they were not rewarded for by the voters, even though the Dutch economy is now growing faster than any other European country. So the defeat of the social democrats in the Netherlands certainly stems from particular Dutch causes, at least to some degree.

But it would be lazy analysis to consider it a purely Dutch problem. Too many social democratic parties are in trouble. And in many countries, the growth of populism seems to hit the (centre-)left harder than it hits the right whereas the perfect strategic response to that challenge has not yet been found. The core reason for our existence, our ambition to unite both workers, the aspiring middle classes and the cosmopolitan progressive intellectuals behind one common ideal, on the basis of common interests – all that seems to be so much more difficult amid the dividing forces of a globalisation, migration and terrorism. When nations fall apart, social democratic parties are the first to fall apart too. It may be true that populism was beaten in the Netherlands, or at least the main populist party will not lead our government – it is certainly true that they were not beaten by the social democrats.

Photo credit:  Jorisvo / Shutterstock.com

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