The Trouble With Dutch Democracy
After months of reading, writing and talking about the Dutch elections, I was in a car crash just before polling day, and missed the whole thing. When the polls opened I was lying unconscious in a hospital bed, and when they closed I was entombed in an MRI scanner. When the results came in, I could barely lift my head to register them on the television screen.
In the end, though, it didn’t matter much. After months of wild speculation, the results were largely as expected: Mark Rutte, the incumbent Prime Minister, was rewarded with the biggest share of the vote; the left-leaning Labour Party (PvdA) collapsed; and a cluster of smaller parties enjoyed picking up the pieces. The far-right nationalist Geert Wilders fared reasonably well, but had done such a good job of offending everyone beforehand that there was no chance of him getting into government. At the time of writing, coalition negotiations are barely past the “let’s talk about talking” phase, but Rutte’s VVD is set to stay in the driving seat, leading a motley crew of D66 liberals, GroenLinks left-wingers and Christian Democrats. It typically takes about ten weeks for a Dutch coalition to form, but in effect, the outcome will be business as usual: a compromising, centrist, reasonably competent government which most people can safely ignore.
Although unexciting, this outcome was exactly what many people had hoped for; a solid defeat of the populists who’d threatened a ‘Nexit’ to follow ‘Brexit’. Angela Merkel said the outcome was a “good day for democracy”, while Francois Hollande said it represented a “clear victory against extremism”. However, those celebrating the death of populism might be wise to put the champagne on ice for a while. I’ve written previously about the sudden demise of the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA), and the question of whether the Dutch left can bounce back from a bad result, or will instead (like the UK Labour Party) continue to spin as aimlessly as an untethered windmill. It now seems that a variation of the same problem faces the Netherlands as a whole: how best to respond to a narrow victory over populism, and ensure that Wilders doesn’t bounce back in the future?
These are hard questions to answer, but a couple of things are clear. Firstly, it’s clear that in many ways, the Dutch political system is a stitch-up. A proportional voting system and coalition governments are not without their benefits, and have helped build a stable social democracy where the rights of minorities are strongly protected. But the fact that all Dutch governments are coalitions also means that the social contract between voters and politicians often seems more like a disappointing polygamous fling than a stable marriage. People might vote enthusiastically for a party which (say) promises to build a bridge between Den Haag and Haarlem, but they also know that the bridge will probably never get built – after the election, party power-brokers will meet in private to agree compromise policies which don’t massively offend anyone, but don’t really please anyone either. This endless splitting of differences is one reason why Wilders’ populism is popular. In a system where no-one ever gets exactly what they vote for, and where governing is done by back-room negotiation, it’s easy to argue that the whole system is rigged in favour of the elite.
In that context, there’s a risk that Wilders’ recent result might make things worse. Thousands of Dutch voters backed Wilders in part because they liked his anti-establishment message. If the establishment’s response is to assemble a wobbly multi-coloured coalition which includes almost everyone but Wilders, they risk effectively proving his point; confirming (in the eyes of the populists) that the system is rigged to exclude anyone who doesn’t fit in with the crowd at Davos. Wilders’ supporters, having been told for months that they were in with a real shot at seizing power, are unlikely to go gently into the night, and may become more angry and alienated than ever.
It’s also clear that the major parties need to find new voices and new policies which can appeal to those who feel ignored. If the Dutch mainstream fails to do this, they risk going down the same road as their counterparts in United States; where discontent with the governing elite was left to bubble under the surface for years before exploding volcanically in last year’s election. There were many reasons for Donald Trump’s victory, but one was the abject failure of the Democrats to find a presidential candidate who could appeal to voters who felt trampled rather than rewarded by globalisation. In the Netherlands, the situation is far less extreme. There’s plenty of space for fringe voices in politics, and it’s hard to portray Wilders – a well-educated professional politician – as an authentic ‘man of the people’. The elevation of the thirty-year-old Dutch-Moroccan-Indonesian Jesse Klaver to within grasping distance of a cabinet seat also seems like a step in the right direction. However, it’s notable that the leaders of the seven largest parties in parliament are all men who have spent most of their working lives in politics. It’s easy to see why a blue-collar worker in Rotterdam might feel little affinity with centrist, managerial leaders like Rutte and his new allies, who speak fluent IMF and look like the kind of guy who fires you.
To be clear: I think that Geert Wilders is wrong about most things. In my opinion, his narrow-mindedness goes against the instincts – openness, internationalism, tolerance, creativity – which have made the Netherlands so successful, and his foreign policies are reckless and impulsive in a way which make Donald Trump look like a great statesman. However, during the election, Wilders was right to argue that the Dutch economy has performed unimpressively. Like Trump, he was right to point that while many people have benefited from globalisation and free movement of labour, many others have not. Above all, he was also right to argue that the voices of the left-behind are too easily ignored by those for whom immigrants (as I crudely put it in my book) are “more likely to give them a good price for retiling the bathroom than to take their job”.
Whatever the eventual shape of the new government, one must hope that they don’t simply kick the can further down the road, mock or belittle the populists, and revel in their narrow victory. Instead, they should make a concerted effort to understand and address the concerns of the millions who flirted with populism. If not, the next election will simply be a re-run of the last one, and could be even closer. Wilders’ tone and his policies may be poisonous, but on one or two critical issues, he was right to raise warning flags. Even a broken clock is right sometimes.