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13 September 2012

The Dutch opt for centre-right reliability over populism

Like elsewhere in Europe, the leftist camp in the Netherlands is struggling to grow.

By Olaf Cramme

The Netherlands has voted – and no one really expected the result. The centre-right liberal party VVD of Prime Minister Mark Rutte achieved its best score ever (26.5 per cent) and is set to lead the next government. The social democratic PvdA under its young and dynamic leader Diederik Samsom came a close second (24.7 per cent) and defied all negative predictions. A grand coalition between the two election winners seems most likely: together, they could form a comfortable parliamentary majority of 80 out of 150 seats. And if deemed insufficient, the third winner of the night, the centre-left social-liberal D66 (7.9 per cent), looks willing to join. All three parties are committed to the European project; all three defend Dutch openness and a tolerant society. Despite significant differences in socio-economic questions, a reliable platform for cooperation is perfectly within reach.

The election losers are no less difficult to discern: both Rutte’s partner, the Christian democratic CDA, which slumped to one of its worst result ever, and Geert Wilders’ xenophobic Freedom party PVV, which supported the government from the margins, lost some five per cent of their electoral share and ultimately paid the price for the collapse of the coalition. As such, they both confirmed and defied a powerful trend in recent European elections: yet another government was voted out of office in the face of the eurozone crisis.

Indeed, 17 incumbent governments have now been angrily removed from office since the Greek crisis in May 2010. At the same time the Dutch have offered their Prime Minister (not his coalition) a second mandate. In this sense, Mark Rutte joins a small group of centre-right politicians who have survived and won back-to-back elections in the crisis era: Frederik Reinfeld in Sweden; Donald Tusk in Poland; and Andrus Ansip in Estonia.

At first glance, the Dutch result seems telling: Wilder’s extreme right and the far-left Socialist Party, which stagnated at around 10 per cent after predictions that it could compete for the top spot, wanted the elections to be a referendum on Europe. Both parties voted against any of the Eurozone rescue measures and are fiercely critical of the kind of deeper integration envisaged by EU leaders. But the hope of capitalising on widespread disillusion, if not anger, with the European project turned out to be misguided. The Dutch electorate rejected populism and opted for reliability instead.

According to Erik van Bruggen, a campaign insider, polarising narrowly around the EU question has been a strategic mistake. Faced with serious social and economic challenges, the Netherlands had to choose between different paths of reforms. Both the Liberals and the PvdA understood this choice and presented sharp alternatives. Against it, Wilders’ Freedom Party and the far Left remained stuck in a fight many were just tired of.

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The consequence was a late surge in strategic and tactical voting. Polls in the run up to the election could not possibly predict the huge swing driven by a high number of undecided voters. Rutte skilfully occupied the centre stage on the right, arguing for tax cuts and market liberalisation to revive the economy. Samsom’s PvdA managed to regain the hegemony on the centre-left by offering voters a vision of social and ecological renewal without compromising on economic credibility, for instance on budget deficit limits. In the end, it was a two horse race. Each side tried to push their leader over the line first. In a political system ridden by fragmentation and polarisation, the strengthening of the mainstream and a moderate shift to bipolarity has been the actual revelation.

None of this, however, can obscure another truth: for all the talk about resentment towards financial capitalism and enragement with collective austerity, this was yet another election where the centre-left could not win. To be sure, the PvdA staged a remarkable comeback and achieved its best result for over a decade. But even this wasn’t enough. The last victory goes back to 1998, when the reformist Wim Kok championed the modernisation of the Polder Model. More worryingly, yesterday’s PvdA gains came largely at the expense of GroenLinks, a natural ally on the centre-left. The leftist camp thus struggles to grow. A problem the Dutch share with many of their European counterparts.

Olaf Cramme is director of Policy Network. Find him on Twitter as @olafcramme