Don’t Worry About the Many Political Parties in the Netherlands

Parties come and go, but the Dutch mainstream always finds a way to keep policy more or less on track.

Civil servants listen to a debate in the Dutch parliament in The Hague, December 6, 2016
Civil servants listen to a debate in the Dutch parliament in The Hague, December 6, 2016 (SZW/Martijn Beekman)

More parties than ever could win seats in the Dutch parliament next month, but that hardly means the country is on the verge of becoming ungovernable.

The Financial Times writes that the proliferation of political parties in the Netherlands — 28 will be on a ballot paper in March — makes the election hard to call and its aftermath potentially messy.

But less than half those parties are projected to win seats and only one newcomer, 50Plus, is expected to win more than a handful.

That could still be a record number and the Financial Times is right when it points out that support for the three largest parties — the Christian Democrats, Labor and Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s liberals — has fallen from almost 90 percent three decades ago to around 40 percent today.

But that observation misses a few nuances.

Ups and downs

The first is that high support for the three major parties in the 1980s was unusual at the time.

The Christian Democrats didn’t compete as a single party until 1977. Up until then, they had consisted of three parties: one for Catholics and two for Protestants.

In the early 1970s, as many as fourteen parties won seats in parliament, including a populist agrarian party, the communist party and anti-nuclear pacifists. Joop den Uyl needed five parties for a majority in 1973.

The political landscape was less diverse in the years after World War II, but there were also more than a dozen parties in parliament during the 1920s and 30s.

Whenever there is economic or social upheaval in the Netherlands, as was the case during the interwar years and again in the 1970s, new parties tend to pop up.

The Dutch voting system doesn’t make it difficult for them. There is no electoral threshold. There are no districts or runoffs. If a party wins .6 percent support, it gets one out of 150 seats in the lower house.

Stabilizing effect

Despite these ups and downs, the Dutch mainstream has always found ways to incorporate new parties and broadly maintain the status quo.

Parties come and go. Policy remains pretty middle-of-the-road.

If anything, the occasional electoral upset has a stabilizing effect on Dutch politics.

The big disruptor in the 1970s was D66, a radically democratic center-left party. It ended the monopoly of the old parties in the public sector, for example by claiming mayoralties for itself (which remains unelected). It also convinced Labor to form a coalition government with the liberals in 1994 — for the first time without any Christian parties. That made it possible to legalize euthanasia and gay marriage, issues the Dutch public supported but which the Christian Democrats had blocked.

D66 now epitomizes the “establishment”, in that its views are globalist and its voters upperclass. It went from outsider to kingmaker in two decades.

In the early 2000s, it was Pim Fortuyn who shook up the political class with his outspoken views on immigration and Islam. He was assassinated a week before the 2002 election, but his party became the second largest nonetheless and joined a right-wing government. It quickly succumbed to infighting and fizzled out, but the rise of Fortuyn taught the mainstream parties important lessons: multiculturalism was unpopular and ignoring nativist concerns, or dismissing them as racist, wouldn’t make them go away.

Struggling to keep up

Many of the new parties this year are right-wing. They feel Rutte’s liberals aren’t Euroskeptic enough, but that the Freedom Party is too nationalistic. None of them are likely to win seats, but they might convince the liberals to take a harder line or the Freedom Party to soften its.

The only serious newcomer is 50Plus, which currently has two seats in parliament and could go up to ten. Its popularity signals to parties in the center that they have failed to take the concerns of seniors seriously enough. The retirement age has gone up, pensions have been cut, technological changes, like e-government, are happening fast, all the while the Dutch continue to debate their identity. It’s a lot to keep up with.

It’s no coincidence that Rutte announced just the other week that his party plans to spend more on retirement homes if he is returned to power. That’s how this works.

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