The Dutch general election of 2023: a new dawn, an old acquaintance
After 13 years as prime minister, Mark Rutte, leader of the centre-right Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy; VVD), announced his departure from Dutch politics. A new time had come and the opportunities for a new ordering of the political landscape abounded. Greens and social democrats had merged into an electoral alliance under former EU Commissioner Frans Timmermans, hoping to unite the left-wing vote. The incredibly popular politician Pieter Omtzigt – who gained fame and popularity for helping to uncover a large scandal concerning the government wrongfully accusing hundreds of families of welfare fraud – announced the formation of a new centrist party called New Social Contract and was immediately seen as a contender for the post of prime minister. Additionally, only eight months ago, the relatively new agrarian-populist BoerBurgerBeweging (Farmer-Citizen Movement; BBB) was the undoubtable winner of the provincial elections.
It came as a surprise to many then, that the undeniable winner of the snap elections held on November 22nd was veteran politician Geert Wilders and his nationalist Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom; PVV), who has been a staple of Dutch politics for 17 years.
For years, Wilders and Rutte were each other’s favourite opponents. For Rutte and his voters, Wilders represented extreme and unserious populist politics, while vice versa, Rutte represented the depoliticized establishment, unresponsive to voters’ concerns. Consequently, Wilders victory should be seen within the context of not just Rutte’s departure, but as part of the end of an ideological era.
The micro-level: opening the door
In some sense, the story is simple. A centrist coalition government collapses because of disagreements over asylum policy. Prime minister Rutte announces his departure from Dutch politics and his successor Dilan Yesilgöz tries to reinvent the VVD as a conservative party promising to reduce immigration. In an attempt to convince voters of the seriousness of her right-wing promises, Yesilgöz departed from Rutte’s ten-year refusal to cooperate with the PVV, a cordon sanitaire which started after the collapse of Rutte’s first government in 2012.Experienced as he is, PVV-leader Geert Wilders saw the window of opportunity and announced his willingness to compromise and shelve his most controversial views, which include closing all mosques and banning the Quran. The signal was clear: if voters want action on the immigration issue, a big PVV will finally be able to deliver. Any political scientist could predict what would happen next. Despite last-minute attempts at damage control by the VVD (including Yesilgöz stating she would only cooperate with the PVV as a junior partner), Wilders’ party surged in the polls just days before the election. In the end, it won by a huge margin, more than doubling its vote from around 11% to 24%.
Case closed, one might think. Yet, this analysis only considers the supply-side of politics. More interesting, is the deeper trend in voter behaviour that can be observed. Understanding this requires a short history of Dutch politics.
The macro-level: the end of an era
Since the establishment of universal suffrage, the Dutch political scene – like much of Western Europe – has been dominated by the three ideologies of social democracy, Christian democracy and liberalism. In the 1980s this ideological triumvirate finally crystallized into three distinct political parties: the Christian democratic CDA, social democratic PvdA and liberal VVD. Since then, they have been the traditional parties of government, flanked by much smaller Christian, green and socialist parties.
Yet, this old triumvirate is dying. The social democrats were the first to go. In the elections of 2017 they dropped from 38 seats in the 150 seat parliament, to just 9. The joint list with the greens they formed this year was framed in optimistic terms, but was also rooted in a sense of desperation. Together they managed to gain 25 seats at the expense of other smaller progressive parties, a result unimaginable to the enormous PvdA of the second half of the 20th century. The only places where the left-wing alliance managed to become the biggest party were in or near progressive university cities like Amsterdam, Utrecht and Nijmegen.Meanwhile the Christian Democratic CDA won just 5 seats this year, in the past having reached more than tenfold that amount. With Rutte’s departure, the VVD seems to slowly succumb to that same fate.
All the while, all over Europe, a new group of voters emerged in the late 1990s, which was concerned about high rates of immigration and the cultural change that resulted from this. Combined with a lack of trust in the political establishment, this led to the rise of the populist radical right, with the PVV as its Dutch incarnation, founded in 2006 by former VVD-politician Geert Wilders.
Apart from opposing immigration, the PVV presented itself as an anti-Islam party, describing the religion as a totalitarian political ideology and proposing to “de-Islamize” the country. After a brief failed attempt at government in a confidence and supply agreement with centre-right VVD and CDA in 2010, the PVV has been the subject of a cordon sanitaire since 2012. Ever since then, the nationalist-populist voter has been looking for an alternative. When presented with alternatives, the Dutch populist voter is as volatile as other voters. In 2019 this propelled the national-conservative Forum for Democracy (FvD) to become the biggest national party in provincial elections. As FvD radicalized into conspiracy theories and extremism, it lost voters’ support, and in 2023 the agrarian-populist BBB (Farmer-Citizen Movement) became the biggest party in every province during this year’s provincial elections. Now, barely eight months later, the BBB only won 7 seats during the general election, as voters “returned” to the PVV.
Too often the populist vote is framed as simply a protest vote, motivated by economic insecurity. But the recent history of Dutch politics shows that, for over two decades, there has been a large demand for a culturally conservative party which mobilizes anti-establishment and anti-immigration sentiments. The “populist” aspect of these parties cannot be separated from the ideological attitudes towards immigration. As the VVD opened the door to the PVV and Wilders managed to present himself as a leader capable of compromising in coalition government, the search for more moderate alternatives to the radical right was over; the PVV had itself become that alternative.