In March 2021, the national elections of the Netherlands took place. With the limitations posed by COVID-19, political parties and their leaders had to come up with alternative campaign strategies. While some thrived under these circumstances, others fell short.
Covid-19 was not the only issue influencing the Dutch elections this year. The stakes were rather high: only two months before the elections, the Dutch government had been forced to resign over a tax and institutional racism scandal, the so-called ‘allowance affair’. Over 30,000 families – many of whom with a double nationality – had been accused of fraud and had to pay back thousands of euros to the tax authorities.
Additionally, the pandemic was still in full swing and not handled as well as was expected. It took the Dutch government until December 2020 to make the use of masks in public spaces mandatory and for a long time the Netherlands had one of the lowest vaccinations rates in Europe. Other issues such as the housing crisis, climate policy and the student loan system increased the importance of these elections even more.
TikTok cooking skits, or climate policy?
As with many facets of ordinary life, Covid-19 severely restricted politicians’ abilities to campaign. With lockdown imposed and public gatherings limited, it was much harder for politicians to engage with the people in the way they usually do. Rallies in big halls were out of question and the amount of public (televised) debates was reduced. This resulted in a surge in online campaigning. Not a website could be opened without a portrait picture of one of the party leaders staring at you and social media transformed into a jungle of one-liners. Many parties were present on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, but also less traditional social media were utilised. Jesse Klaver, the leader of GroenLinks (the GreenLeft-party), started his own cooking skits on TikTok and Gert-Jan Segers of the ChristenUnie (the Christian Union) presented his favourite music on the party’s YouTube channel.
Social media becoming one of the main campaign tools during Covid is not surprising. It is a great way to reach a younger demographic, which is often difficult to mobilise. In addition, with restricted mobility, social media forms an effective way of spreading political messages. Alongside this, social media offers an opportunity for politicians to get closer to people and offer an insight into their personal life. This can help further increase their popularity, as studies have shown that people are more inclined to vote for a party if they think their leader is ‘sympathetic’ and possesses the same qualities as them, just with more leadership capabilities. Additionally, there is a preference amongst voters for politicians which appear in public and in (social) media more often. The public wants politicians to be outgoing, sociable, and talkative, because these characteristics are associated with honesty and transparency.
With political parties now posting memes and making appearances on TikTok, they seem to have fully immersed themselves in this alternative campaign tool. Populist parties especially seem to profit from the online interaction with supporters, as these parties often profile themselves around their ‘charismatic’ leader.
In the Netherlands, this was evident in the support for both Forum voor Democratie (Forum for Democracy, short FvD) and the Partij voor de Vrijheid (Freedom Party, short PVV), generally regarded as right-wing, populist parties, centred around the figures of respectively Thierry Baudet and Geert Wilders. Both parties generated the highest amount of online interactions. In the case of Baudet, this was amplified by the fact that his party was one of the few also engaging in offline activities. Baudet even travelled through the country in a touring car, neglecting Covid-19 regulations. As a big pillar of his campaign was to get rid of the ‘ridiculous’ corona rules, his offline strategy caused much attention in the traditional media as well. This can also have contributed to the high amount of social media interaction the party was able to generate.
While populist parties tend to do well online, parties with an older voter base seem to struggle more with the shift from offline to online campaigning. The Christian Democrats (CDA), whose voters are generally 45+, have much less interaction on social media than for example the GreenLeft party, which often attracts younger voters. A prime example here is also the 50+ party, and Lijst Henk Krol, which both focus on an older segment of the electorate. When Henk Krol announced that he intended to use Instagram to interact with his supporters more, the response from his voters was rather timid.
The reason for this timid response is in line with much-heard criticism towards online campaigning. Opponents feel that in the pursuit of likes and in an attempt to show the person behind the politician, actual political content is often lacking. Social media often revolves around stimuli, and maintaining someone’s attention online can prove difficult, as people easily scroll past your post. This can incite politicians to stray away from their message and more difficult political topics and exchange these for light-hearted or funny posts.
Politicians as the new celebrities
Not only social media is of importance during political campaigns. How often party leaders appear in the traditional media (talk shows, organised debates, interviews, etc.) also plays an important role in shaping the image of politicians and therefore their parties. This is not necessarily a Covid campaign strategy, but media portrayal rose in importance as other campaign strategies were limited. As the curfew forced people to stay inside after nine, the number of viewers of late night talk shows increased. Millions of people watched politicians, athletes, singers, and reality stars discussing the current state of affairs during these shows. This Dutch talk show tradition, where politicians take the role of ‘celebrities’, offers politicians more screen time for their campaign, while at the same time providing talk show hosts with an interesting guest at the table.
The media tends to favour more extraverted and agreeable politicians and these generally receive more media visibility. Much-heard criticism is that this approach often benefits radical right-wing parties, as they usually do not shy away from more controversial statements, which creates more interesting or sensational television. This in turn encourages talk show hosts to invite them more often. In the Netherlands, this led to an overrepresentation of far-right politicians in the media, in comparison to how they were doing in the polls. Conservative liberal newcomer JA21 for example, was a welcome guest in many talk shows and was significantly more often invited than other newcomers such as BIJ1 (an anti-racist, anti-capital left wing party) and Volt (a progressive social liberal party).
Political horse race
The media thus serve their own purpose: attracting more viewers. In practice, much less of an emphasis is placed on the politics, and much more on the competition. Larger, content-based debates are less interesting for viewers, and therefore make way for 1-on-1 debates in which party leaders are pitted against each other. This fits within the horse race narrative which the media seem to encourage. The constant polling and comparing leads to a rhetoric of winners and losers, in which the content is of inferior importance.
During debates, Rutte (VVD, liberal party for freedom and democracy) and Wilders were often placed opposite of one another, as polls initially predicted that their respective parties would gain the most votes. As Rutte had indicated after an earlier failed co-govern attempt that he would no longer work together with Wilders due to his discriminatory rhetoric and uncooperative practices, these debates seemed rather futile. They often became repetitive: Rutte emphasised his virtues as a leader during Corona times and claimed that Wilders was not suited for making difficult decisions. Wilders in turn would accuse Rutte of failing on immigration policies. Neither would address other problems the Netherlands struggles with and both leaders knew what the outcome of the debate would be. Nevertheless, they generated the media attention both parties wanted.
Contrastingly, the 1-on-1 debates proved destructive for the Dutch Left. Instead of getting to grind the coalition parties about the pension crisis, inequality in education or the housing crisis, they were forced to face other left-wing leaders, from which their policies often did not substantially differ. The result was self-destructive for the Left: the attention was turned away from the actual problems the country faces and the right came out victorious. The far-right has emerged from the elections bigger than ever, while the traditional left-wing parties have never received less seats.
(Social) media plays a substantial role in shaping the opinion around political leaders. It provides a platform for politicians to broadcast their parties’ opinions, while simultaneously winning the sympathy of voters by showing their personal side. Campaigning during Covid has posed new challenges for party leaders, which creates both opportunities and pitfalls. (Social) media can offer a way of reaching voters in a time in which offline campaigning has been rather restricted, or win the votes of a young demographic which is otherwise hard to mobilise. The limitations of media can, however, also chip away from content, by focussing on sensation or provide insufficient exposure for alternative voices. This is something to be aware of, as more European elections under Covid-19 limitations might take place in the future, such as the German federal election in September. Choosing what is best for a country consists of more than one-liners.