Are you Happy or are you Angry? The Choice Dutch Voters Face on Wednesday

Reading reporting on the upcoming general election in The Netherlands, one gets the impression that the Dutch face a choice between Geert and Wilders. The right wing populist leader of the Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV) – or Freedom Party – dominates the news around the world. Many foreigners would have a hard time naming any other current Dutch politician. All the foreign media seems to care about is: Will Wilders become the biggest party in The Netherlands? Is Nexit next? How can it be that a far right populist is doing so well in a country that has a long history of liberalism and progressive politics, where the economy is growing, and unemployment is low? In this contribution, I aim to highlight some of the important things about the Dutch elections, which you will not learn from journalists obsessed with Geert Wilders and the questions above.

The first important observation to make is that the Dutch party landscape is extremely fragmented. There is no threshold to representation in the Dutch lower house. There are 150 seats, so it suffices to get 0,67% of the vote to get representation. Israel and The Netherlands are the only countries in the world with this system of ‘perfect proportional representation’. The party landscape is extremely fragmented because of this lack of thresholds. 28 political parties compete in the current elections. There is a Party for Animal Rights, three different Christian Parties representing various strands of the Catholic and Protestant faiths, a party for people over 50, and at least three different far right populist parties. Based on current polls, it seems 11 to 14 parties will enter the next parliament. The biggest parties will likely get roughly 15% of the vote. So when you read headlines about Wilders becoming the biggest party in The Netherlands, keep in mind that this still only means he gets 15% of the vote. That is not nearly enough to build a government. Since most other parties have ruled out governing with him, chances of Wilders entering the next government – let alone becoming Prime Minister – are very low. In all likelihood, a coalition of at least four different parties is needed and the elections will generate multiple possible coalitions. A difficult process of coalition formation will start, which likely will take weeks, if not months.

The second problem with the media’s obsession with Geert Wilders is that it implies that the Netherlands is taking a sharp turn towards the right. In many ways, it is true that Wilders has become more popular with the Dutch population and mainstream parties like the Liberals (VVD), the Christian Democrats (CDA) and the Social Democrats (PvdA) have become a lot more critical about immigration, multiculturalism and European integration to try and win back votes from Wilders. However, in doing so, they have left a gaping hole on the progressive liberal side. Here we see the Dutch Green Party (GroenLinks) and the Social-Liberals (D66) making headways. Both these parties are expected to win a substantial amount of votes. Rather than a right wing turn, we see a polarization in The Netherlands along the new cleavage pitting ‘Cosmopolitans’ against ‘Communitarians’. On the one hand, we see two extreme Cosmopolitan parties – GroenLinks and D66 – campaigning openly in favor of more Europe, welcoming more refugees and advocating a tolerant society. On the other hand, we see Wilders, the Socialist Party (SP) and other Communitarian parties campaigning against immigration, blocking access to the welfare state for foreigners and in favor of leaving the European Union. These extreme parties are winning, while the mainstream is losing.

For a long time, the main response to a rising challenge from far right populist parties in Western countries has been to partially cater to them by adopting their rhetoric, and partially defend the status quo, but half-heartedly so. This strategy has turned out to be a losing strategy, as both David Cameron and Hillary Clinton will be able to tell you. Now we see that Cosmopolitan forces are learning the lesson and turning toward an aggressive advocacy of an open world and welcoming societies. Jesse Klaver (party leader of GroenLinks) represents this trend in The Netherlands, Emmanuel Macron does so in France, and Martin Schulz in Germany.

Still, it would be misleading to conclude that the elections are all about immigration and the EU. In fact, substantive policy stances have played a very small role in the campaign. Instead, both sides have campaigned more on feelings and mentality than on policy. Wilders mobilizes through fear and anger. Klaver and Pechtold gain in the polls by being optimistic and hopeful. After Brexit, one might have expected a lot of discussion on a possible Nexit and Dutch referendum on the EU. Not so. Instead, the Dutch wait and see what happens in the UK before making up their minds about EU membership. Not even the European Commission’s five scenarios about the future of the EU managed to spark a real substantive debate during the campaign. Rather than informing their votes by their opinion on policies, Dutch voters are left to vote based on whether they are ‘happy’ or ‘angry’. Campaigning on a sense of happiness and under-specified optimism, with positive stances on multiculturalism and the EU in the background, Jesse Klaver is set to be the biggest winner of this year’s Dutch election.

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