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Fortuyn's ghost will haunt the Netherlands for a while yet

Disaffected voters could start flowing back to the fringes as austerity hardens.

New Statesman
Dutch Prime Minister and leader of the liberal party VVD Mark Rutte (L), and the leader of the Dutch Labour Party PvdA Diederik Samsom (R). Photograph: Getty Images.

Today the Dutch Liberals (VVD) and Labour Party (PvdA) will kick off cabinet formation talks in an atmosphere of great expectation. Since voters handed the xeno and europhobic Geert Wilders a drubbing last week, many voices in the Dutch commentariat have asserted that the country is crawling out of the shadow of another populist firebrand.

"This is the end of the insurgency of Pim Fortuyn", one political scientist told the daily De Volkskrant, referring to the flamboyant anti-immigration politician whose rise and assassination in 2002 marked the onset of a decade characterised by wobbly governments and strident protest politics. Other pundits made similar declarations, speaking of the return of normalcy or 'the end of a decade of discontent and pessimism'.

That the election results have changed the political equation in The Netherlands, is indisputable. In 2010, current PM Mark Rutte still needed the PVV's parliamentary support to prop up his shaky minority coalition of Liberals and Christian Democrats (CDA). This time around, Rutte's VVD and the PvdA have secured an ample majority in the Dutch lower house to form a centrist two-party cabinet.

But will their new coalition really preside over the dawn of a peaceable era of politics from the middle? So far, the eagerness with which some have been proclaiming a post-Fortuyn epoch may be mostly revealing of their pining for a more harmonious past.

For a good portion of the nineties, The Netherlands was seen as a land of thrifty prosperity and progressive politics, shored up by a knot of reliably centrist parties. In 1994, after CDA and VVD had pushed through welfare reforms under difficult circumstances, an 8-year coalition of PvdA, VVD and the social liberals of D66 took over. These so-called purple cabinets —a mix of the liberal blue and social democrat red— set about consolidating government finances and pursuing innovative social politics, such as the legalisation of euthanasia and the introduction of same-sex marriages.

Yet Fortuyn abruptly deprived the coalition of its jaunty hue, terming its legacy 'the ruins of Purple' instead. Astutely identifying public discontent over crime and safety, an unwieldy public sector and what he called the 'islamisation' of The Netherlands, he quickly rose to prominence, first as a member of the Livable Netherlands Party, later as the leader of the eponymous List Pim Fortuyn (LPF). When he was killed by a militant ecologist nine days before the 2002 parliamentary elections, the immediate backlash was directed against the purple parties, who suffered a resounding loss.

The Hague has been in a state of confusion ever since. In the past ten years no government has been able to serve out its term as successive cabinets were wracked by infighting, whilst the traditional parties of government faced their own crises.

The VVD was the first to be beset by rifts between its left and right wings. One of the most prominent disputants was MP Geert Wilders, who was kicked out of the party in 2004. First as a one-man bloc, and later as a leader of his own PVV, Wilders kept injecting his vitriol into an  already tense public debate over immigration and Islam.

Under the leadership of Mark Rutte, the VVD eventually began drifting towards the right, leading to an election victory in 2010, after which it reaffirmed its course by allying with CDA and PVV. For the historically middle-of-the-road CDA, however, this proved an unfortunate experiment. While part of its right-wing electorate had already been persuaded by the more outspoken messages of the VVD and PVV, many left-wing CDA voters now felt alienated by the decision to collaborate with the latter. When Wilders eventually toppled the cabinet by walking out of negotiations over new austerity measures, the CDA had little to show for its participation. The image that emerged during the past years was that of an ideologically disoriented party, preoccupied with the exercise of power.

The PvdA, meanwhile, has equally been grappling with its sense of direction. Its dalliance with Third way politics, as well as the reputation of its functionaries as out of touch and in some cases even money-grubbing, made it easy for the hard left Socialist Party (SP) to present itself as a more principled alternative. A former Marxist party, the SP has gradually shed its doctrinary tenets to advocate a more homely brand of left-wing thought based on preserving a strong welfare state and moderate euroscepticism —not against the EU, but against a so-called 'neo-liberal EU'. For a long while during the past campaign, the SP was riding high in the polls, vying with the VVD to become the biggest party in The Netherlands.

A month ago then, few would have predicted that PvdA leader Diederik Samsom would so easily overshadow his SP counterpart Emile Roemer in the debates and lead his party to a tally of 38 seats (out of a total of 150). Nor was the VVD expected to get a record 41 MP's. Ten years after Fortuyn, the two parties that bore the brunt of his revolution, are about to seize back power together.

To infer from their shared triumph that the middle has risen from the ashes, however, is a stretch. For one thing, the rest of the results tell another story. The once all-powerful CDA has been relegated to the doldrums, its seat count now at a historic nadir of 13. Another traditional centrist party, D66, won only modestly while the Greens were blown away, retaining only four seats out of a previous total of ten.

Moreover, it remains to be seen how the coalition parties will retain their electoral standing in the months and years to come. Internal conflict as well as unpopular compromises may soon dent their current popularity, as Liberals and Labour are no longer the purple allies of yore.

Under pressure from the SP and the PVV, respectively, both parties have embraced opposing views on key issues such as the marketisation of health care, income taxes, social security, and Europe. The VVD is reluctant to give up Dutch sovereignty and money, as evidenced in its opposition to further European integration and Rutte's campaign promise that no more Dutch money would be going to Greece. Samsom, on the other hand is in favour of lending Greece more support if needed and a cautious advocate of further European integration, including a banking union and euro bonds.

Given the pragmatic nature of both parties, some of these differences will be smoothed out without too much difficulties. Nevertheless, as a columnist for the daily NRC Handelsblad noted, the internal polarisation of the political centre has made a government of VVD and PvdA almost as unnatural as a Westminster coalition of Conservatives and Labour.

On top of all this, the political centre also has the long-term dynamics working against it, according to Gerrit Voerman of the Documentation Centre for Dutch Political Parties at the University of Groningen. 'Party loyalty has diminished because of the erosion of the old ideological pillars and individualisation. And then there's issues like Islam, immigration and, more recently, the euro crisis that create polarisation between the centre and the fringes. Those are themes I don't see disappearing easily.'

Different parties have their specific problems as well, notes Voerman: 'The Christian Democrats' traditional base is shrinking as a result of secularisation. And Labour's electorate is divided between the lower and the middle class as well as the lower and higher educated groups, whose views on themes such as the welfare state, globalisation and European integration are increasingly differing.' The VVD's spectacular growth, meanwhile, suggests that it may now also incorporate a disparate assortment of previously centrist as well as PVV voters.

Reconciling the wide-ranging spectrum of opinions and interests within their own ranks could already prove a hard thing to do for both government parties. Sustaining a big tent coalition of the left and the right then, will demand a formidable effort of its leaders. Add to this the painful austerity measures and reforms they will have to enact, and a scenario in which disaffected voters start flowing back to the fringes does not sound very far-fetched. Fortuyn's ghost may stick around for a while after all.