A Commentary on the Dutch election results

As a Dutchman, few things are more tiresome than to have to explain the workings of our political system to outsiders used to less democratic systems with three or just two parties. It is understandable enough that a proliferation of viewpoints, embodied in different parties, can be confusing: as many as ten parties at any time may hold seats in our parliament. Nonetheless, the very fact shows the clear and substantial benefits of proportional representation, which this election once again underlines. No voting threshold means that smaller parties on the basis of strong ideas, but with less overall popularity, have a small representation which allows them to exercise ideological pressure on the larger parties – as exemplified by the PvdD, the only ‘deep green’ party in any country’s parliament in the world. Since animals and the environment have no vote, this party can represent something of an interest that in the larger scheme of things would not be heard. Similarly, since there is no district system, there is no gerrymandering, there are no ‘strategic votes’ (unless one considers the Prime Ministerial position to be the most important issue, which few do), and most importantly, every vote actually counts. In the elections for Westminster in the United Kingdom as many as 70% of all votes are routinely wasted because of the first past the post system, and turnout in countries with such systems is therefore also notably lower (except for Australia, which has compulsory voting). The diffusion of the vote is sometimes seen as a problem, because it demands much of the difficult process of coalition-making. Yet at the same time the greater precision in preferences enabled by this system allows many different coalitions to express more precisely different combinations and nuances of political ideas and ideologies that would otherwise be swamped under major polarisations of ‘left’ versus ‘right’ or ‘liberal’ versus ‘conservative’. Finally, the argument of instability of government is not much of an argument either: having elections held more often in fact increases the influence of popular opinion on the course of government, which is why the US House of Representatives is voted every two years, for example. In an age in which all modern countries are by necessity ruled by bureaucracies from day to day, the supposed ‘instability’ therefore is imaginary. Belgium was for half a year ruled by no federal government at all, and yet not a single Belgian noticed any particular collapse in the functioning of social relations or governmental daily life. The only ‘instability’ is that of the possibility of different ideologies to work together, and it is fitting that if a clash of that kind occurs, the voters have a say in which course is the right one.

That being said, these particular elections have proven to be as interesting and exciting as many expected. There is definitely a move to the right overall on the part of the Dutch electorate, although the foreign news media as always have a tendency to overstate this. Most major foreign newspapers tend to be owned by large media corporations or else to be playing up fears for domestic purposes, and for that reason the results of the right are always overstated, whereas those of the left are always understated. For example, after the elections of 2006, the Socialistische Partij (SP) obtained 25 seats, a full one-sixth of the electorate; and yet not a peep about this was heard from any foreign newspaper. Yet the party of Geert Wilders has obtained the lesser amount of 24 seats, and all the foreign headlines proclaim the victory of the right. Where was the news of the “left wave” in 2006? Indeed, the VVD under Mark Rutte have become the largest party, the first time any liberal party has become the largest since the introduction of universal suffrage. Yet the only possibility for a stable coalition will be one not with Wilders, but with Labour (PvdA), GroenLinks, and D’66; a decidedly liberal coalition for a time of capitalist crisis, but hardly a massive victory for the right wing. It is precisely the strength of proportional representation that it allows radicals of left and right their deserved share of representation, yet it by no means enforces that their positions will be close enough to the median result to ensure participation in government. This depends on the constellation of forces as much as in any other system, if not more so. The Dutch voting public seems to have massively abandoned the Christian-Democrats for more right-wing parties, which means a shift further to the right of the center-right electorate; but at the same time there is not much difference in the left vote, if one includes the liberal left D’66, except perhaps a slight move to more economic liberalism. The necessary and correct result prevails under the proportional system: a centrist, but above all liberal coalition will be the most likely outcome.

How to analyze these results, however? The SP with its 25 seats failed entirely to maintain an effective presence and opposition during the past government period, and was deservedly punished for its inability to use its popular mandate in a constructive manner. That it maintained 15 seats finally, when prior to 2006 it had been a party which would have been happy with a result of 7 or 8 for decades, indicates that nonetheless the left wing in the Netherlands has been able to regroup against the neoliberal tendencies of all European social-democratic parties. Job Cohen’s decidedly more leftist tone during the campaign as leader of the PvdA also proves this. Wilders profited clearly from the uncertainty of the economic crisis to draw particularly the poorly educated ‘white’ workers, often unemployed or in precarious positions, to his party – more so than the actual experience of immigration or crime, since he performed best in areas not particularly known for being heavy on either. There is an interestingly strong regional element to the results: Wilders’ victories were disproportionally large in the south of the country, and the losses of the Christian-Democrats the heaviest there. The dominance of the protestant wing of the latter party and their associated sobriety, rigidity and economic right policies may well have harmed them more than they thought in the overwhelmingly catholicized (though not very devout) and underdeveloped southern parts of the country. Wilders’ party shifted opportunistically in the past years from a petty bourgeois reactionary program of xenophobia and economic ultraliberalism to a more populist-nationalist mix of xenophobia with a calculated economic conservatism, consisting of the preservation of welfare systems but also of the privileges of home-owners, and so forth. This combination seems to have served him very well precisely in the southern areas as well as a few ‘white trash’ counties like Volendam, aided perhaps by Wilders’ own roots in Limburg.

At the same time, the victory of the VVD and the increases in votes for GroenLinks, which despite its name moves ever more to economic liberalism under Femke Halsema, and D’66, when contrasted with the stagnation of the Labour party, seem to indicate a strong shift on the part of the political center towards liberalism. On the one hand, this was a repudiation of Geert Wilders in his role as Cassandra warning for the conquest of ‘totalitarian’ Islam and the like, but at the same time it seems a strange response in a period of increasing unemployment and capitalist crisis. The Netherlands however is a country which has for centuries been extremely dependent on foreign countries and the carrying trade for its economic success, and in that sense a crisis situation is much more likely in fact to encourage a liberal response than in countries with a more ‘closed’ economy and a more pronounced industrial base, such as the United Kingdom or Germany. Moreover, no liberal party in the Netherlands is particularly inclined to attack the social-democratic consensus of the working class – the liberalism is rather one of small measures and of austerity in the face of large public debt, which is closer to Baldwin and Ramsay MacDonald than it is to Thatcher, in British terms. A traditionally risk-averse country with a strong Calvinist subconscious such as the Netherlands is not willing to endure uncertainty and debt for as long as, say, the United States. If indeed the coalition is formed as expected, with VVD, PvdA, D’66 and GroenLinks, the understanding remains that the foundations of social-democracy are untouchable, a strong union presence is guaranteed, and the liberal austerity response within these parameters becomes perfectly understandable.

The election nonetheless also has a few unobserved aspects which are worth briefly noting. The first is the altogether collapse of confessional politics: all Christian parties combined have merely 28 of 150 seats, the lowest amount ever. Whether this is mainly due to the factors mentioned as well as the unpopularity of Balkenende personally after a long period of his rule remains to be seen, but it does appear that the liberal response of the Dutch public is one of rejection of both vehement assault upon one particular religion (Islam) as of a religious conservatism in politics during crisis years. Reform in the Netherlands means modernisation, and modernisation means a rejection of conservatism. The same was seen in the progressive ‘Purple’ cabinet of the 1990s in response to the 1980s crisis years, when the first cabinet without a confessional party immediately and to great acclaim set about legalizing abortion, regulated euthanasia, introduced gay marriage, and so forth. This reaction is perhaps not a fundamentally different one to that seen in the UK or in the United States, where the electoral system and its narrow party politics restrained the electorate, but the basic instinct seems to have been in favor of the ‘modernising’ wings of the respective winning parties, rather than their ‘classic’ wings. Certainly the Tories knew what they were doing when they incongruously presented Cameron as the “man of change” and their party as one of the future rather than the past.
Another important aspect is the environmental angle. The massive loss of the Christian-Democrats also means a severe defeat for the farmers’ lobby, whether this was intended or not. At the same time, the green parties kept or increased their representation. Although the economic crisis unfortunately pushed the environment off the table as a subject in the political debates, seen from this angle the perspective for environmental improvement is a good one, better in fact than in at least a decade. With the CDA weakened, their power to block the necessary reforms in animal well-being, in pollution standards, in emissions regulation and so forth on behalf of the intensive agrocapitalism in the Netherlands is strongly diminished.

The official results will be announced tuesday next, and of course the formation of a coalition may take some time – statistically, yet other combinations than the expected are still possible. But as it stands now, the expectation can be that the Netherlands will have a government that is both greener and more liberal than those of the past, and one that may be both able and inclined to significant change. It is not the outcome I would wholly have preferred, but the Dutch have also rejected a counsel of despair.

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