The Netherlands’ ruling Labor and liberal parties suffered heavy defeats in municipalities across the country on Wednesday, reflecting widespread discontent with their national economic policy.
Despite a third of the votes going to local parties, the elections for city and town councils were nevertheless seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s government, in office since late 2012. With turnout just over 50 percent and the ruling parties losing nearly 10 percent support nationwide, it was a damning inditement.
Polls give Geert Wilders’ nationalist Freedom Party, currently the fourth largest in parliament, more seats than either Labor or Rutte’s liberals. The two got over 50 percent support in the last parliamentary election.
However, Wilders’ party, which was founded in 2006, only competed in the cities of Almere and The Hague. Conservative voters elsewhere who were dissatisfied with Rutte’s broken election promises not to raise taxes and reduce government spending instead defected to the Christian Democrats, who lost council seats but won slightly more votes than they did in the 2012 parliamentary election, and the centrist liberal Democrats, who were the biggest winners.
Labor’s heaviest losses came in the major cities. In Amsterdam, the capital, and Groningen, the biggest city in the north of the country, which have both been under Labor government for more than half a century, the liberal Democrats took 26 and 21 percent of the votes, respectively. In Utrecht, Labor lost half its seats and came in third, after the Greens. In the port city of Rotterdam, it placed second after a local conservative party.
The bad showing could destabilize Rutte’s coalition which lacks a majority in the upper chamber of parliament where the government depends on the liberal Democrats and small Christian parties to enact legislation.
The outcome could also be a preview for European Parliament elections in May when Wilders, a Euroskeptic, is expected to win most Dutch seats.
Voters’ dismay reflects the coalition’s poor economic record. Despite a feeble recovery in exports, the Dutch economy last year was still 3.5 percent smaller than before the crisis. Household consumption has been depressed by public-sector wage freezes and higher taxes that have also undermined business confidence.
The sales tax has been raised from 19 to 21 percent while excise duties on alcohol, fuel, soft drinks and tobacco have risen further, putting filling stations near the borders with Belgium and Germany out of business. The insurance tax rate has tripled while a surtax on incomes over €150,000 was levied in both 2012 and 2013. Income tax brackets have also not been adjusted for inflation for several years which has amounted to a de facto tax increase across the board.
Public sector spending, meanwhile, has continued to rise in real terms, despite deep cuts in defense and savings in health care.
Labor Party voters in particular disapproved of the government’s policy to shutter nursing homes in favor of cheaper home care as well as reductions in social housing. Many voted for either the Socialists or the liberal Democrats instead.
The European Commission forecasts 1 percent growth for the Netherlands in 2014, after a .8 percent contraction last year. The country’s budget shortfall exceeded the European limit of 3 percent of gross domestic product in 2013 and is likely to exceed it again this year.