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How Mark Rutte and his party gambled and lost in the Dutch elections

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The victory of far-right politician Geert Wilders and his party PVV in the Dutch parliamentary elections leads one to ask: How could this have happened? The Netherlands is a small and densely populated country, which, like other Western European countries, has to deal with relatively large migration flows. Asylum seekers, expats, migrant workers and foreign students arrive in large numbers to the country, which is popular for its tolerant image, good facilities and lower taxes for expats. Migration has been a divisive issue in Dutch politics and society for many years.

PVV leader Geert Wilders

 

Once arrived, foreign workers and students find their own way. For asylum seekers, the government has created special reception facilities. It is a flexible system that expands when large groups arrive and shrinks when numbers decrease. Thus, more temporary accommodations for asylum seekers are created once more arrive. In the case of shrinking numbers, these accommodations are closed again.

Unfortunately, the Dutch asylum system has been faltering for years. Often, citizens are surprised when authorities announce that an asylum seeker center is opening in their neighborhood. Over the years, many small villages have been in the news, often with a few hundred inhabitants that suddenly doubled. Furthermore, the registration point for refugees, in the northern village of Ter Apel, has capacity problems and practical challenges, such as a shortage of beds. The government has tried to solve the issue, but can hardly manage it.

In the Netherlands, as in other European countries, the massive influx of migrants is putting pressure on housing, welfare and social cohesion. More and more Dutch people – nowadays making up around 80% of the population – have had enough and want to get a grip on migration. The desire to find solutions has existed for more than 20 years. Successive governments have failed to deliver on their promises and the public has become more frustrated and impatient.

Since the 1980s, the right-wing liberal party VVD has been one of the more important parties in the Dutch political landscape. It governed continuously in coalitions between 1982 and 2023, albeit with a five-year and a then three-year break in the opposition. Mark Rutte – historian by training – has been its leader since 2006. After having had a job at Unilever and having twice been Deputy Minister, he won the 2010 elections convincingly. Together with the Christian Democrats, Rutte forged a minority government that was supported from parliament by the PVV, Geert Wilders’ anti-immigration party. This government collapsed after about 18 months because Wilders did not want to take responsibility for austerity measures.

However, Rutte continued. He has remained Prime Minister until now by winning election after election. Winning of a Dutch election does not mean ‘winner takes all’. The Netherlands has a multi-party system, with numerous parties, in which usually no one party ever secures an overall majority of votes. Also, it has a proportional representation system without a legal threshold. Therefore, the ‘winner’ of an election is always the party who ends up in first place. After the elections are over, a coalition of several parties have to form a new government.

Rutte’s VVD won several elections. Because he didn’t want to cooperate with Wilders PVV any more, he always ended up cooperating with left wing and center parties in coalition governments. He also put up a firewall against Wilders. According to Rutte, he is an unreliable politician who cannot be trusted. Because the Prime Minister also advocated harsher migration policies, many of Wilders’ voters jumped ship to Rutte, securing him many electoral victories. After 2012, the Prime Minister had to govern with social democrats, Christian democrats, leftist liberals and evangelical progressive Christians – all political entities who do not endorse harsher migration policies. Rutte and his VVD where obliged to compromise on the migration issue, therefore not delivering what was promised to voters.

 

Read also: Mark Rutte: a lost manager in times that require real leadership

 

Things started to change after the 2021 elections: the left liberal party, D66, had won the elections. Having grown in size significantly, it was therefore able to grant many of its own wishes in a new government. For Rutte and his VVD, there needed to be a way out. They found it by blowing up the cabinet, on July 7, after months of negotiations on a new migration deal. By forcing a crisis and early elections, the VVD could enter the campaign as the issue owner on migration.

Shortly after Rutte offered his government’s resignation to King Willem-Alexander, he announced his own departure. He would be caretaker Prime Minster until the country had a new government. Within a short time, his successor Dilan Yeşilgöz took over. The Minister of Justice with Turkish roots had achieved little during her period – she travelled to Italy with Dutch journalists to state she wanted to take over the Italian detention system for mafiosi – but was relatively popular among the VVD electorate.

According to tradition, snap elections were called. On November 22, the Dutch voted for a new government. The VVD was more than ready for the elections, but other parties were not quite ready yet. The small but successful Farmers’ Party (BBB) got to work, and the popular MP Pieter Omtzigt founded his own party, Nieuw Sociaal Contract or NSC. The Social Democrats and Greens decided to cooperate and introduce a party combination, GroenLinks-PvdA. Proudly, they presented European Commissioner Frans Timmermans as their candidate for prime minister.

While others were preparing for the campaign, Yeşilgöz delivered a remarkable message on August 18th. This time, the VVD wanted to cooperate with Geert Wilders. His eleven long years of being neglected by the right-wing liberals seemed to be over. Later, Wilders announced that he would put his extreme views on Islam on hold for four years, therefore making him reliable for VVD and other voters who did not like his attitude towards and extreme ideas on Islam. Wilders campaign slogan was easy: Dutch residents needed to “come on first place”. As usual, there was his package of a strict and clear migration policy, combined with socio-economic leftish positions.

The election campaign was underway in mid-October. The hoped-for “Timmermans effect” did not materialize as many Dutch voters in the middle of the political landscape did not see the former Vice President of the European Commission as their new prime minister. In addition, although the election manifesto included serious plans on migration issues, Timmermans did not have a clear story about migration on the campaign trail. Instead, he focused more on climate change, healthcare and education. MP Pieter Omtzigt also disappointed. In the beginning, his new party NSC did well in the polls, but later dropped because he did not want to clarify whether he wanted to become the new prime minister. In addition, the Farmers’ Party had been severely weakened because its leader Caroline van der Plas had attracted a number of controversial politicians, including a former deputy minister who is known to many as leaning towards conspiracy theories.

The Netherlands is said to be a “mediocracy” where politics are decided in and by the media. The last two weeks before election day indeed saw a number of major TV debates. While Wilders was not really visible earlier in the campaign, he did participate in these debates. His performances were overwhelmingly good, according to friend and foe, and about a week before November 22nd, his party overtook Pieter Omtzigt’s NSC in the polls. In the final polls Wilders emerged as winner, after which VVD leader Yeşilgöz suddenly declared that she did not want to serve in a government lead by Wilders, hoping her voters would stay in her camp.

Precisely because Yeşilgöz had opened the door to Wilders, many VVD voters were able to cross the threshold to vote for his PVV. The VVD had disappointed them for many years. The party had once promised a stricter migration policy, but was unable to implement it in several coalition governments. A growing number of rightist voters saw Wilders as an alternative for the VVD. Therefore, he could emerge as the largest party in the polls.

The result of the November 22nd elections was clear: Geert Wilders became by far the largest party with 37 parliamentary seats, accounting for more then 99% of the total. Pieter Omtzigt’s NSC grew from one to 20 seats and the Farmers’ Party went from one to seven seats. Yeşilgöz’s VVD lost and ended up with 24 seats. Together, these four parties have 88 seats, a large majority in the 150-seat parliament. If such a government is to be constructed, it could take decisions on migration, as no other government has done before.

Then there is Timmermans’ social democratic and green experiment. His new political entity managed to be the largest left-wing party, but did not win the elections. Leftist and progressive voters make up only a third of the total Dutch electorate and voters who are in the center did not feel attracted to the message of the leftist bloc. Furthermore, Wilder’s PVV became too big to ignore. It is, therefore, very unlikely that Timmermans will enter a new coalition government, unless he wants to govern with the rightist VVD and center right NSC of Omtzigt. This is a highly unlikely scenario, because he and his party combination are too leftist to fit in a shoe with two other more right-wing parties.

2023 Dutch general election’s results

 

A day after the day after, on November 24th, the formation of a new Dutch government started. The process immediately took an unexpected turn. VVD leader Yeşilgöz surprised everyone by saying he did not want to join a government with Geert Wilders after all. Instead, she wants to support a minority government from parliament. This should be a center right minority of PVV, NSC and BBB. The leaders of the three other parties were not amused by her sudden move. Not only has Yeşilgöz deprived the Netherlands of the chance of a stable majority government, she will also be able to take the minority government hostage during the entire new legislature.

Yeşilgöz’s choice may be strategic. By playing hard to get, she could improve her position and demands for a later phase in the formation process. However, it can also be a decision just to not enter government. In case of the latter, the VVD will again take on a major gamble. Because the PVV, NSC and BBB are relatively new and have no governance experience, there is a sincere chance of failing. At the same time, the VVD could receive the blame in case it loses its confidence in such a minority government and drops its support. In that case, many VVD voters will not have forgotten Yeşilgöz’s move on November 24th and may punish her in the voting booths.

As for Prime Minister Mark Rutte? He has been almost invisible since the fall of his government. He also did not want to react to the bad result and has been spotted in foreign capitals, talking to world leaders. Generally, it is to be expected that he will apply for the top job at NATO or a top job at the EU. Hopefully by then, all bets will be off.