Some 10 million people in the Netherlands go to the polls on 12 September 2012 to elect a new government. The election was triggered by the action of the right-wing populist Geert Wilders in April pulling the rug from under the minority government of premier Mark Rutte. The Dutch have lately become used to early parliamentary elections; these are the fifth to take place in the still young 21st century. On the eve of the vote, around 40% of voters are still undecided, so it is impossible to predict the outcome. But whatever it is, the effects will be felt beyond the Netherlands. Like the Greek and French elections earlier this year, these are also European elections.
For decades, Dutch politics were boring, even by the fairly uneventful standards of western Europe. People voted on the basis of their class or religion, which meant that election results were highly predictable. Even when other European countries started to experience various electoral "earthquakes" in the 1970s and 1980s, with high volatility shaking up "frozen" party systems, Dutch politics remained stable: the question was which other parties would govern with the CDA (Christian Democrats), the VVD (centre-right), or the PvDA (centre-left). Dutch commentators noted, with only a slight sense of exaggeration, that the CDA had been in power longer in the Netherlands than had the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. And whether centre-right or centre-left, the Dutch government would be an enthusiastic supporter of European integration.
Dutch politics did experience increasing electoral volatility in the 1990s, though primarily between the established parties. This changed in the 21st century, first with the meteoric rise of the List Pim Fortuyn, whose flamboyant leader was shot a week before the 2002 elections, and more recently with the rise of the radical-right Freedom Party (PVV) and the radical-left Socialist Party (SP). These new parties have not only challenged the power position of the mainstream parties, they have made European integration a political issue.
As in all European elections these days, the economic crisis is the major theme in the Dutch campaign. But the pressure of the PVV and SP has given this an explicit European dimension. Despite misgivings about certain aspects of the bailouts, the mainstream parties continue to support the agenda of the European Union. They are being challenged by Eurosceptics from the left and right, who are at last giving voice to a growing number of Eurosceptic voters.
The SP wants to break free from the European Union-sanctioned austerity mandate, while the PVV wants the Netherlands to leave the EU. The prime minister, under pressure from these parties and an increasingly bailout-weary population, has announced that a new government under his leadership will not contribute to any more bailouts of Greece. Mark Rutte's announcement will have been well received by other reluctant European governments, like the Finnish and Slovak, and could strengthen the growing Eurosceptic opposition in powerful countries such as Germany and Britain.
A new government under Rutte, based on the majority support of the VVD, PvdA and the liberal D66, is probably be the most pro-European post-election scenario. This is what the EU leaders in Brussels ever-less secretly hope for. Such a government would be only a lukewarm supporter of the official European path, and it would reach out to other Eurosceptic member-states; but the EU will undoubtedly be able once again to pressure and shame it into supporting further bailouts and integration. For despite all the Eurosceptic rhetoric of previous governments, Dutch politicians have never really stood up to EU pressure. Even when a majority of the Dutch voted against the European "constitution" in the 2005 referendum, the government responded by excluding the possibility of a referendum on the subsequent, revised Lisbon treaty.
If the mainstream parties fail to build a majority government, however, political instability will endure not only in the Netherlands, but in the European Union as a whole. The EU will not be able to rely forever on Dutch support for the bailouts and its plans for further European integration, as the new government will either include Eurosceptic parties or have to seek ad hoc support for these measures beyond its coalition. This is why today's elections in this small European country will be followed with great anticipation by economic and political leaders around the world.