Rutte Wins If Dutch Vote with Their Pocketbooks

Culture-war issues help Mark Rutte’s competitors. He wins by making the election about the economy.

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte listens to a debate in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, January 20, 2016
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte listens to a debate in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, January 20, 2016 (European Parliament)

Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s liberal party would benefit from switching the election debate in the Netherlands to the economy, on which it is trusted the most.

Cultural and social issues, like immigration, pensions and security, currently play a major role.

In the first party leaders debate on Wednesday — which Rutte and his Freedom Party rival, Geert Wilders, skipped — the national economy barely featured.

Instead, politicians spent a third of their time debating what Donald Trump’s election in the United States means for Europe and the Netherlands. Left-wing leaders said he was a menace to transatlantic relations; right-wing leaders were either unperturbed or argued that Trump’s surprise victory cautions against complacency at home.

Culture war

An emphasis on values and the Netherlands’ place in the world benefits the two extremes in what the Atlantic Sentinel calls Europe’s blue-red culture war over modernity: the cosmopolitan liberal Democrats on the one hand and the nationalist Freedom Party on the other.

As I reported here the other day, support for the Freedom Party rises the farther away one travels from the commercial and political heartland of the Netherlands. But that is exactly where the liberal Democrats find their voters: in cities like Amsterdam, Leiden and Utrecht.

The Greens, who are also internationalist, are popular in the same cities and university towns.

Together, these two “blue” parties are supported by one in five Dutch voters, which would give them roughly thirty out of 150 seats in parliament.

Support for the “red” Freedom Party hovers around 20 percent as well. It is projected to become the single largest, although most other parties have ruled out forming a coalition with it.

Hounded

Rutte — who has been in power since 2010 and is expected to remain prime minister — is trying to lure conservative voters away from the Freedom Party by simultaneously ruling out a pact with Wilders and admonishing those who “abuse” Dutch liberties.

Rutte was hounded for suggesting that immigrants who refuse to adjust to Dutch society ought to make a home for themselves elsewhere.

The hysterical reaction from the left did nothing to diminish the liberal party’s support. If anything, it enhanced Rutte’s credibility with anti-elitist Freedom Party voters. Seeing him take flak from big-city newspapers signals to small-town voters that he is on their side.

Trust

Rutte’s weakness is his trustworthiness. Having presided over coalitions with the left and the right, he has had to renege on commitments. He walked back a promise of tax relief during this parliament and struggled to cope with the fallout of last year’s Ukraine referendum, in which a majority of Dutch voters rejected an EU association agreement the government had already ratified.

A majority nevertheless credits Rutte for leading the Netherlands out of the economic crisis.

All indicators point to a healthy recovery: consumer spending and industrial production are up, exports and investments are rising, joblessness is down to 5.4 percent. Between 1.6 and 2.1 percent growth is projected for 2017.

Labor comeback

If the liberals manage to switch the debate to bread-and-butter issues, they win and the liberal Democrats and Freedom Party lose.

The question is whom they would find on the other side?

In 2012, Labor surged in the weeks leading up to the election as left-wing voters, wary of four more years of austerity, scrambled to unseat Rutte.

When Labor subsequently went into coalition with the right, leftists were dismayed. Few have forgiven the party for this betrayal, but the other center-left parties have drawbacks of their own: The liberal Democrats are too eager to compromise; the Socialists are unwilling to compromise at all; the Green party leader, Jesse Klaver, is young and untested.

Unless Labor manages another comeback, the next prime minister will have to herd parties from the left and the right into a workable coalition.

No one has been more capable of that than Rutte.

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