The Polarization of Dutch Politics

After years of consensus politics, the left and right in the Netherlands are far apart.

The land of the “polder model” is no more. Whereas Dutch politics during the last decades of the twentieth century were dominated by a culture of consensus, the rift between the political left and the political right has widened in recent years, culminating in an almost perfect split between conservative and leftist parties.

The division became evident after last year’s parliamentary election when Dutch voters swung the right and made Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party, known for its anti-establishment and anti-Islamist rhetoric, larger than the traditional ruling party, the Christian Democrats.

The election was narrowly won by the liberals. They formed a coalition with the Christian Democrats which won a one-seat majority in the lower house of parliament from Wilders.

Even if the Freedom Party isn’t formally part of the government, cooperating with Wilders, who has characterized Islam as a totalitarian ideology and proposed to ban the burqa and the Quran, has been controversial. Hundreds of thousands of traditional Christian Democrat voters defected to his party last summer but among conservative party members, a third opposed the coalition.

Last month’s provincial elections probably left the ruling coalition one seat short of an outright majority in the upper house of parliament but it is likely to count on the vote of a minority party on the religious right. To humor these orthodox Protestants, the government will not relax laws governing Sunday shopping as the liberals would like and consider reform of current abortion law.

Abortion is legal in the Netherlands into the 24th week of pregnancy and subject to a five day waiting period. The government may lower that threshold to 21 weeks.

While orthodox Christians and liberals are far apart on cultural issues, including euthanasia and gay marriage, they share a vision of limited government and like to be tough on crime. Indeed all four parties in the Netherlands’ new conservative alliance want less interference in people’s private lives and enterprise and less involvement from Brussels in Dutch immigration policy.

Ahead of the election, Prime Minister Mark Rutte called upon voters to support the coalition, even if they wouldn’t elect members of his own party. Wilders similarly urged voters to provide the three parties with a majority.

Faced with a €18 billion shortfall, Rutte’s cabinet has proposed deep spending cuts that affect welfare programs and public-sector salaries. The opposition considers the budget cuts imbalanced and unfair and has suggested that the government raise taxes on high incomes and corporations to mend the deficit.

In recent polls, the Labor Party was almost as popular as the liberals but its opposition to labor and housing market reform has occasionally alienated it from minority parties on the left. The country’s Green party and centrist Democrats actually voted with the ruling coalition in support of a Dutch police training mission in Afghanistan when Wilders and his Freedom Party opposed further military intervention overseas.

While Labor leader Job Cohen celebrated the results of the most recent election as a victory for the opposition, with five very different sizable parties on the left, ranging from socialists to left leaning liberals, it seems unlikely that he will be able to unite them on major issues.

The coalition on the right has worked in favor of the liberals, who, for the first time in a hundred years, could deliver the prime minister, and in favor of Geert Wilders, whose party is growing more solid and influential. As third partners, the Christian Democrats have not fared well.

After it was formed in the late 1970s as an alliance of religious parties, the Christian Democratic Appeal has dominated Dutch politics and governed almost constantly except during the 1990s when Labor and the liberal party joined in a “purple” coalition.

The party’s middle position, once regarded as an asset, has left it without a clear ideology, fueling debate between its conservative majority and parliamentarians who favor a return to the center.

For decades Christian politics have been in decline while party loyalty in general has dwindled. In seems unlikely that in the newly polarized constellation of Dutch politics, the Christian Democrats could prosper anew as a broad centrist movement. With the liberals and Geert Wilders outflanking them on the right, it chances of recovering altogether seem slim.