A bleak week in Dutch politics: where next for progressives?

Dutch parliamentary elections 2023: despite a progressive alliance of labour and greens, the extreme right were victorious. The result has shocked the country, and the world. So what happened, and why have progressives gone into alliance under a proportional voting system? Former Compass staffer Remco van der Stoep reports from the Netherlands.

It may have been November, it may have been the Netherlands, but it was the 24th of June 2016 all over again. Just like the UK had done on that day, this week the Netherlands looked into the mirror and saw a reflection that bared some resemblance to the country from before, but colder and uglier. The Dutch general election returned a sobering verdict about its society and political class, as almost a quarter of the electorate turned to the overtly racist and islamophobic party of Geert Wilders, making it the largest party by far in the otherwise fragmented political landscape.

Uncharted territory

It had been coming. Back in 2019 the regional and senate elections provided a first dire warning, as a newly formed right-wing populist party received more votes than any other party. Fast forward one electoral cycle, to March of this year, and an even stronger political earthquake was delivered by the so-called Farmer Citizen Movement, which had campaigned against nature protection regulations affecting livestock farmers. It went from no seats to being the largest party in every single province, and as a result, in the senate too. Observing the Dutch electorate in the 21st century is a bit like studying climate models: from extreme to unprecedented, then to uncharted.

Uncharted, because this week’s resounding victory by Wilders’ shamelessly named Freedom Party feels like a different order of magnitude to the previous shocks. Firstly because of the discriminatory policies he advocates and secondly because this was not a regional election, but a national parliamentary one. If Wilders can persuade other parties to form a government with his party, then he will be prime minister. Whether this will happen remains to be seen. There is no ‘cordon sanitaire’ tradition in Dutch politics, but few parties will be keen to serve in a government led by Wilders. But, just like in June 2016, it is as much about about the immediate impact on politics and society as it is about the eventual outcomes.

One week on from the election, we’re seeing all sorts of reflexes that are immediately reminiscent of the weeks following the EU Referendum. Divisions in society seem amplified by the result and the dominant narrative on all sides is of ‘us’ and ’them’. Commentators are scrambling to make sense of the causes and contributory factors to the unexpected PVV victory. Depending on who you ask, the main reason is the legacy of Mark Rutte, his party’s overtures to the PVV during the campaign, the disconnect between progressive parties and their traditional voter base, the failure of the media to properly scrutinise populists, or the tensions in society following the Israel-Hamas war. The full picture is, of course, complex and decades in the making. Progressives will need to acknowledge that, if they want to build a political future that’s different.

Green-Labour alliance

It’s fair to say that progressive political parties in the Netherlands have started to address their decline in a populism-plagued fragmented political landscape. GroenLinks and PvdA, the Dutch green and labour parties, frustrated by their electoral marginalisation as individual parties, went into the latest elections as an alliance. Within both parties, the idea of such a red-green collaboration had been gaining traction and support in recent years and an important step was taken earlier in 2023, when both parties agreed a joint candidate list for the senate, testing the waters for next-level collaboration. Some years ago, this would have been unthinkable, but realisation grew among party members and leaders that the most viable route to political influence – power even – at the national level would involve forming a new progressive bloc. When the 2023 general election was unexpectedly called in July, the parties were still completing their joint member consultation process, but estimated that support for an electoral pact would be strong enough. They weren’t wrong: some 90 percent of members in both parties voted in favour of a joint manifesto and a joint candidate list. The progressive alliance was made.

With EU climate commissioner Frans Timmermans giving up his Brussels role to head the GroenLinks-PvdA list, hopes were high among Dutch progressives. Throughout the campaign, polls suggested the progressive alliance had a shot at becoming the largest party, although three other parties were polling at similar levels. In the end it wasn’t to be for the alliance, as it was spectacularly outperformed by Wilders’ far-right populist party (37 seats to 25). Despite a dramatic and bleak backdrop, the result of GroenLinks-PvdA presents hints of a silver lining. The joint vote share grew from 11 to 16 percent, which saw the alliance narrowly beat the VVD – Mark Rutte’s party that was leading consecutive coalitions since 2010 – and become the second largest party in parliament. Should Wilders’ attempts to form a government fail, then Timmermans is next in line: a majority coalition of democratic parties from left and right is a theoretic possibility. Right now, this option is carefully left unmentioned by politicians, for fear of being seen to ignore the electoral outcry the Wilders victory has come to symbolise.

A necessary step forward

So, should the Dutch progressive alliance be viewed as a success? The preliminary answer would be ‘mostly’. There are two elements to it. The first is the electoral performance, which presents a mixed picture. Whilst recording a strong increase in the vote share, the GroenLinks-PvdA alliance fell short of winning. And inconveniently, its gains seem to have come almost exclusively at the expense of other, smaller progressive parties, while there was a net shift from progressive to right-wing populist votes. If the alliance is to change the tune of Dutch politics, it will need to win over voters who are currently supporting parties on the right, rather than concentrating the existing progressive vote share. What the 2023 election and its immediate aftermath are demonstrating, is that neither GroenLinks-PvdA nor other progressive parties have found a way to appeal to the ever increasing number of disenchanted voters, not yet at least.

The second element to gauging the success of the alliance would be the organisational side. This I think has been a remarkable success. Across the country, joint red and green campaign teams were taking to the streets in a collective spirit, working together as if they always had. It reminded me of the energy and camaraderie I felt during the 2017 campaign in the UK, when being part of mixed campaign teams with Labour, Green, Lib Dem and other progressive supporters, joining forces to bolster the chances of the best-placed progressive candidate in marginal seats everywhere. Of course, a minority of members and voters are unhappy that GroenLinks and PvdA have gone into an alliance with each other, but they too will have to acknowledge that in the face of the country’s shift to the populist right, a progressive counterweight is a necessity – and the recent campaign has shown just what that could look like.

Whether the alliance will eventually result in an outright merger of both parties remains to be seen. The broad enthusiasm for joint working at the national level does not necessarily translate to the local level. This is especially true for municipalities with an overwhelmingly progressive electorate, where elections are typically a race between labour and greens. Local politicians and campaigners in places like Utrecht, Amsterdam and Nijmegen may see more obstacles than benefits, and voters may question the merits of a merger if it means they end up with a one-party majority on their local council – a deeply unusual situation in Dutch politics. In the meantime, the momentum is strong. GroenLinks and PvdA have just announced a referendum about the 2024 European elections: members can vote if they want the parties to take part as one. If the membership agrees to the proposal, the MEPs for GroenLinks-PvdA would evenly allocate themselves across the green and socialist political groups in the European Parliament.

Bad PR for PR?

Finally, a note about a progressive alliance forming under a fully proportional voting system, which from a UK perspective will seem ironic and counterintuitive. And perhaps not the best PR for PR. It’s certainly true that the proportional system in the Netherlands is allowing for the fragmentation that has taken hold of national politics in recent decades. But it is not its cause; alienation from established parties has driven many voters to become politically homeless, happy to drift from party to party, as long as what’s on offer is a clear departure from business as usual. The resulting fragmentation has now become a political problem in its own right, and it has taken courage for GroenLinks and PvdA to address it in the way they did. Thankfully, in a proportional system parties can freely decide to form (or not form) an alliance, in the knowledge that every vote will count either way. Indeed, some have argued that if the Dutch election had taken place under a first-past-the-post system, it could have given Wilders’ party an absolute majority, even on less than 25 percent of the vote.

The alliance of greens and labour is perhaps a first step, it clearly is not a panacea for the ongoing volatility of Dutch politics. The road ahead is looking grim, as the right-wing majority embarks on forming a government around an anti-migrant agenda. Our duty as progressives will be – just as it was in the UK in the years following the EU Referendum – to resist getting caught up in the culture war that populists are igniting and to reach out beyond our bubble, crafting a path to a green, social and democratic society, together with anyone and everyone who wants such a future. And despite the election result, I believe that almost everybody does.

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