The Dutch elections and the Eurosceptic paradox

Despite alarming predictions, last week's Dutch election results turned out to be anticlimactic, as voters placed their confidence in the two mainstream, moderate parties. But Brussels shouldn't celebrate too soon, as the "European weather vane" shows signs of bigger challenges to come.

Cas Mudde
17 September 2012
A billboard in Amsterdam. Demotix/Steppeland. All rights reserved.

A billboard in Amsterdam. Demotix/Steppeland. All rights reserved.

After a short but hectic election campaign the Dutch voter has spoken. And he has spoken very differently at the polls than in the opinion polls. Depending upon the polling agency, opinion polls from the last days were roughly 20 to 25 seats (out of 150!) wrong in their predictions. The mainstream right-wing VVD gets 41 seats and the mainstream left-wing PvdA 38, winning ten and eight seats, respectively. In sharp contrast, the radical right PVV gets only fifteen, a loss of nine, while the radical left SP stays at fifteen, roughly half of what they polled just over two weeks ago.

What has happened in the Netherlands in the past week? And, given that the New York Times has proclaimed the Netherlands as “an unusually good European weather vane,” what are the lessons to be learned for Europe? Is this the start of a new era of strong mainstream parties or just an interregnum in a fairly consistent move toward a volatile and increasingly Eurosceptic continent? 

What seems to have happened in the last week of the campaign is that the roughly 40 percent of undecided voters have overall given in to the two-horse-race frame of the media and have divided their votes almost equally between the two mainstream parties. As many voters said in interview, they had cast a “strategic vote,” i.e. voted with their minds rather than their hearts. As it had become clear to all that neither the PVV nor the SP was considered Koalitionsfähig (acceptable for a coalition) by the mainstream parties, and that the VVD and PvdA were going to constitute the core of the new government coalition, many people decided to vote for the mainstream party of their political leaning, to pull the new government more to the left/right. Alternatively, they didn’t bother to vote at all, in protest at a fifth election in ten years and the lack of a real alternative; turnout was 74 percent, just barely above the historic low of 73.4 percent in 1989.

The results are a big victory for both the establishment parties and the establishment media, national and international, who have done their utmost to discredit the two radical parties. As Geert Wilders bitterly remarked on the night of the election, Brussels is celebrating the loss of the PVV. While exaggerating his own role, as usual, he was not wrong. It is no coincidence that in the last week the two top EU politicians, EU president Herman van Rompuy and President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso, warned against the rise of “anti-European populism,” as Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti recently termed it. But the pro-European establishment was not even mainly concerned about the PVV. Rather, they feared the “anti-European populism” of the left-wing SP, whose ideas were described by The Economist as “as much of a throwback to the 1970s as the platform shoes that are much in fashion in Amsterdam.”

Both parties had campaigned on a very EU-critical platform, particularly in the traditionally very pro-European Dutch context. The SP presented a fairly standard left-wing Eurosceptic position, which is supportive of the ideal of European integration, but critical of the “neoliberal dictates” from Brussels. The PVV went a significant step further, becoming one of the first non-marginal parties in Europe to call for a withdrawal from the European Union. In fact, even older, and previously more radical, populist radical right parties like the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) or Belgian Flemish Interest (VB) do not call for their country to withdraw from the EU.

But while the Dutch have shunned the Euro radicals, and the elections do, “set the stage for pro-European talks,” things are not back to "normal" in the Netherlands. Because, paradoxically, while the "anti-European" parties might have lost the battle, it remains to be seen whether they also have lost the war. In many ways, these have been the most Eurosceptic elections in Dutch history. Only the CDA remained truly Europhile, true to the Christian democratic tradition (and reached a new historic low). All other parties held positions that ranged from qualified support to outright scepticism and rejection. Moreover, VVD leader Rutte might have successfully fought off Geert Wilders, for now, but he did this by, among other things, promising that he would not bail Greece out again. Similarly, the PvdA’s new leader, Diederik Samson, destroyed SP leader Emile Roemer in the debates, but adopted much of the SP’s anti-austerity positions.

Hence, the much anticipated VVD-PvdA government, which will take several weeks (months) to finalize, will put the new Dutch position in between Angela Merkel’s pro-austerity Germany and François Hollande’s pro-stimulus France. It will have little other reason for existence than being pro-EU at a time when the Dutch population is growing more and more critical of its handling of the economic crisis. So, while the notoriously pro-European figures of the Eurobarometer still show broad general support for the European Union - roughly two-thirds of the Dutch population think EU-membership is “a good thing” - more independent sources show growing opposition to key EU policies. Most importantly, a good 60% of Dutch people want the government to stop lending money to crisis-hit euro countries such as Greece.

In short, while the European establishment can give a sigh of relief for now, the Dutch election results should not be interpreted as a victory for the European Union. Rather, what it seems to reflect, according to some preliminary analysis, is that despite it being the first truly European campaign in Dutch history, the vast majority of voters have yet again voted on the basis of purely domestic issues. They have turned to their (more or less) trusted established parties to turn the national economy around, despite rather than because of their European position. If they succeed in doing so, which seems highly unlikely given the limited national power over the economy and the opposing economic views of the two future coalition members, VVD and PvdA, Euroscepticism will remain an irrelevant political attitude in the Netherlands. However, if they fail to do so, and they continue to muddle through with (lukewarm) support for the European bailout programs, the “anti-European populist” parties will be there to point out their campaign promises and pick up the disappointed voters. 

This article has previously been published as part of the Extremis Project.

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