After the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s win in the U.S. election, are the March 15 Dutch elections the next big test of nationalist populism? Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom (PVV) may be leading the polls, but there are many reasons that a nationalist-led government might not come to pass in the Netherlands.
Here’s what you need to know about the Dutch elections:
1) Wilders shares many similarities with Trump
Wilders founded the PVV on an explicit anti-Muslim platform that calls for making “the Netherlands ours again,” banning mosques — which he compares to “Nazi Temples” — and closing the Dutch borders.
For reasons beyond his distinctive bleached hair, the press calls Wilders the “Dutch Trump.” He attended the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland and praised Trump’s victory and travel ban. Wilders also spoke of his International Freedom Alliance’s “mission to stop all immigration from Islamic countries” at a 2014 speech in Palm Beach, Fla. Like Trump, Wilders’s message is all about “your own country first, being independent, having heavy concerns about immigration, and the jobs of your own people.”
Wilders was charged with inciting discrimination for his 2014 pledge to reduce the number of Moroccans in the Netherlands and for comparing Islam to Nazism in 2011. In February, he drew criticism for a comment about the “Moroccan scum in the Netherlands.”
He often takes his message directly to audiences via Breitbart contributions, his PVV party website and a personal blog. Like Trump, he tweets, complaining about the “undemocratic” political system, Dutch judges for being “completely out of touch,” other parties that refuse to work with him and “corrupt Muslim-police” protection. Wilders even briefly had to halt campaign events after a member of his security detail leaked information to a Dutch-Moroccan gang.
And like Trump, he frequently retweets when others provide him favorable mentions.
2) It’s hard to get a majority in the Dutch electoral system
The 13 million or so Dutch voters don’t vote directly for a prime minister or president. And they don’t vote for a single representative per district, as parliament seats are distributed proportionally based on national party vote totals. With 150 seats decided in this manner, the Dutch electoral system is the one of the most proportional systems in use.
Earning 0.67 percent of the national vote entitles a party to a seat. In the 2012 elections, for example, 50+, a pensioners party, and the Party for the Animals each won 1.9 percent of the vote. Receiving double the threshold enabled each to claim two seats in parliament.
After the winning parties distribute their share of the seats in parliament, the candidate who wins a majority of the votes from the 150 members of parliament (MP) is selected as the prime minister — the country’s chief executive. To gain the support of at least 75 MPs and become prime minister, party leaders make policy deals and offer cabinet posts to other parties. These discussions, on average, take three months.
Only two parties are expected to claim more than 20 seats — Wilders’s PVV and VVD, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. The pro-business VVD is the largest party in the Netherlands. In all likelihood, forming a government will require a coalition, and support from four parties. All major parties have refused to cooperate with the PVV.
3) Who are the main parties and where do they stand?
Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s VVD has its preferred partners: Rutte’s former 2010 ally, the Christian Democratic Alliance (CDA), now a midsize party; and the progressive, pro-European Union, neo-liberal D66. D66, a midsize party, favors same-sex marriage, euthanasia, legalized prostitution and marijuana growing. This coalition would be committed to increasing employment.
The party that is currently the second largest, the Labor Party (PvdA), is projected to lose big in the election, according to a poll of polls. Some Labor supporters are disappointed with PvdA’s compromises to the conservative VVD after five years in government together. Two other left-wing parties, the Greens and the Socialists — a populist-left, anti-E.U., anti-globalization party — are projected to do well.
For now, there seem to be three potential outcomes: (1) an anti-Rutte-Wilders coalition of at least six parties; (2) Rutte going back on his earlier pledge and bringing Wilders into government; (3) Rutte’s proposed conservative coalition gaining enough votes to form a government without the PVV.
4) No matter the outcome, the Netherlands is headed in a nationalist direction
Even if the PVV isn’t part of the new government, its populist and nationalist rhetoric has influenced other parties. NOvA, a Dutch law society, concluded in February that the manifestos of all five leading Dutch parties are “openly discriminatory,” illegal and contrary to the constitution.
At the first leader debate, the Christian Democratic Alliance leader noted that without reform, “Brexit might not be the last exit from the E.U.” The PvdA leader called for “being proud of the Netherlands again.” The CDA leader also rejected a coalition with the left-leaning parties, noting that they are “minefields apart” when it comes to environmental policy and migration issues — and with the CDA proposal to ban foreign funding for mosques in the Netherlands.
The ruling VVD passed legislation to limit face-covering clothing in schools, public transport, health care and government facilities. Rutte is proposing stricter rules on immigrants, including a ban of face-coverings in public, an increase in the minimum residency period for naturalization, requiring employment for immigration and language requirements for citizenship, and revoking citizenship from criminal immigrants.
Rutte even penned an open letter to “make crystal clear what is normal and what is not normal in our country … If you reject our country so fundamentally, I’d prefer you leave …. Act normal or leave.”
Polls — and final results — can drastically change. New voters constitute 6.6 percent of the electorate, and they do not favor the mainstream VVD. In the last election, the Socialists led in the polls in the last two weeks yet finished fourth overall.
Research suggests that Dutch voters are able to discern the complexities involved with coalition bargaining and that up to 10 percent of voters will make their choice along such lines. Just before the 2012 election, the support for the Socialists and the PPV collapsed as voters looked tactically toward potential coalitions. In a close race in the Dutch proportional system, even the smallest of swings can affect who comes to power.
At this point, one thing is clear: Whether accepted into government or not, Wilders can claim victory over the battle of ideas. The big question is whether the “patriotic spring” against political elites that started with Brexit and continued with Trump’s election last fall will see its next awakening in the Netherlands.
Matthew E. Bergman is a lecturer at University of California at San Diego. His research and teaching expertise lies in comparative politics and political economy, focusing on Europe.