Analysis

Dutch Left Could Have Worst Election in Decades

Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s liberal party alone would win more seats.

Jesse Klaver
Dutch Green party leader Jesse Klaver attends a European Young Leaders conference in Malta, September 14, 2018 (Friends of Europe)

The three largest parties on the Dutch left could post their worst election result in decades.

At best, Labor, the Greens and far-left Socialists will defend their 37 seats in parliament, according to an aggregate of polls. At worst, they would fall to 31 out of 150 seats, down from a recent peak of 65 seats in 2006.

What happened?

Center-left consensus

Coronavirus plays a role. It has restored confidence in Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his liberal VVD (of which I am a member). Polls give the party 36 to forty seats, up from 33 and more than the left-wing parties combined. With no other party likely to win more than twenty seats, it is difficult to imagine a government without the VVD.

The pandemic has pushed all parties to the left. Even the VVD sees a bigger role for the state — and the EU. As I wrote here in November, there is broad consensus in The Hague for deficit spending, far-reaching climate legislation, more government involvement in housing and higher taxes.

The EU’s deficit ceiling of 3 percent of GDP — the obsession of the euro crisis — has been abandoned.

D66 and the Greens would reduce livestocks while the Christian Democrats and VVD want to build more nuclear power plants to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but all parties are determined to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Left-wing parties would regulate or even freeze rents. The VVD would push middle-income renters out of public housing. Parties agree the national government needs to do more to reduce the Netherlands’ housing shortage, estimated at 300,000.

Labor would add €42 billion in business taxes compared to €3.5 billion under the VVD, but left and right agree (big) companies need to pay more.

Divide

The leftward tilt of especially the VVD has made it easier for voters with progressive economic but conservative cultural views to jump across the political divide.

Which used to be rare. Only one in five Dutch voters is loyal to a party, but they typically change parties within blocs. A social democrat might consider voting for Labor or the Greens but is less likely to go the right.

That started to change in the early 2000s, when droves of white working-class voters left Labor and moved to the far right. Many have stayed there. Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party consistently gets between 10 and 15 percent support.

In more recent years, Labor has also lost urban and suburban middle-income professionals to the social-liberal D66 and Greens; parties with stronger views on the environment and the EU.

In the last election, more than half of D66 and Green party voters were university-educated. Many provincial voters without a degree opted for either the Freedom Party on the far right or the Socialist Party on the far left.

This divide persists. Rutte’s is the only major party that has a broad base of support across age groups, education levels and geography. His ideological flexibility — Rutte has governed with the center-left, the center-right and the far right — helps.

Fragmentation

The advantage of multiparty democracy is that parties don’t need to try to appeal to demographics with conflicting interests.

D66 and the Greens compete for college graduates and the youth vote knowing they are unlikely to attract many blue-collar voters. The Socialists eschew woke identity politics and regard the EU warily, but their generous (or expensive) health and welfare policies appeal to a segment of left-wing voters. The VVD knows it will never be popular with welfare dependents. Denk appeals exclusively to immigrants; 50Plus to seniors; the animal rights party to environmentalists.

The downside is that big-tent parties, like Labor, which used to have voters in all categories, are drained, and it’s harder to make comprehensive coalition deals with single-issue parties.

37 parties are competing in this election, out of which fifteen could win seats. The last time there were that many parties in parliament was in the late 1970s, when Joop den Uyl needed five parties to form a government.

That period of fragmentation begot a period of consolidation. Catholic and Protestant parties merged into the Christian Democrats in 1977. Communists, pacifists and left-wing evangelicals merged into the Greens in 1989. The big three — Christian Democrats, Labor, VVD — got up to 90 percent support combined.

That period of consolidation triggered another phase of fragmentation, which may be reaching its apogee. Proposals to merge Labor and the Greens, sometimes including D66, into a broad progressive party have gone nowhere so far. The parties may consider it more seriously if they post yet another disappointing election result and if there is yet another center-right government.

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