Dutchifying the vote
POLITICS | The Netherlands braces for a momentous election
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Dressed in a starchy white shirt and dark blue suit, Pieter Omtzigt squinted into the sunlight as he spoke to a camera, listing a series of policy proposals.
“Our country has big problems,” the Dutch politician intoned in the campaign video, “and those demand a new way of doing politics and a new politics.”
The two-minute video announcing the launch of Omtzigt’s new political party may seem dull, but it’s actually part of a political earthquake that’s shaking the Netherlands in advance of the next Dutch election, scheduled for Nov. 22. No matter which party wins, the northern European country will start a new chapter, with a long-serving prime minister stepping aside and voters signaling their desire for major changes.
In recent years, fragmentation and volatility have characterized Dutch politics, with new parties weakening the older, mainstream ones. Some political scientists use the term “Dutchification” to describe the spread of similar trends across Europe. The current concerns of Dutch voters—rampant immigration, pressure on farmers, environmental worries—also weigh on the minds of their counterparts in other European nations.
“This might just be the most interesting election in [Dutch] post-war history,” said Roderik Rekker, assistant professor of political science at Radboud University in the Netherlands.
The new party Omtzigt announced in August—called New Social Contract—has surged in the polls. Omtzigt, 49, was first elected to Parliament in 2003 as a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Appeal. He speaks to a growing sense among Dutch voters that their government is broken.
Trust in the government has been damaged by several scandals in recent years. The biggest involved parents who were falsely accused by the government of childcare-benefit fraud, then ordered to repay the benefits, often amounting to tens of thousands of dollars. Omtzigt rose to prominence for his role exposing the false accusations.
Omtzigt wants to overhaul the structure of government and electoral system using not only legislation but also amendments to the constitution. “He basically wants to make this a referendum about the established power, about the ruling elite,” said Rekker.
Another new party is similarly tapping into voter frustration. The Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) was formed in 2019 in opposition to a government plan to shut down farms in order to reduce nitrogen-based pollutants. Public opinion is on the side of the farmers, who staged mass protests, and BBB won the provincial elections in March 2023.
Immigration is also on voters’ minds. Each month, several thousand asylum-seekers arrive in the Netherlands, around half from Syria. The Netherlands has also taken in about 95,000 Ukrainian refugees. The new arrivals have strained capacity in the densely populated country of 17.5 million.
The migrant crisis brought on the collapse of the previous coalition government, ending the career of Mark Rutte, the longest-serving prime minister in Dutch history. Rutte wanted tighter migration restrictions than some of his coalition partners. The issue may bolster Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy as well as far-right parties like the Party for Freedom.
Politicians on the left, meanwhile, are focusing on climate change, a major concern for voters in the coastal nation. The GreenLeft party and Labour Party recently fused under the leadership of Frans Timmermans, who served as the European Union’s commissioner for climate policies.
The Dutch elections model a new era of political fragmentation in Europe. The lower house in the Dutch Parliament has 150 seats, and over 20 parties are currently represented there.
Dutch political fragmentation is extreme because the threshold for winning a seat in Parliament (0.7 percent of the vote) is unusually low. But similar trends are emerging in other European countries. A notable example: Germany. In the German federal elections in 2021, the country’s two biggest parties had a historically low showing at the polls, together winning less than half of the votes.
The Netherlands has also experienced the collapse of its traditional political center. Christian Democratic Appeal, which formerly dominated Dutch politics, is currently polling at a handful of seats. The Labour Party was historically large but joined with the Greens due to its eroded voter support.
This is paralleled in France, where the traditional center-left and center-right parties have also imploded. “Now basically, every election is a battle between the new party of [President Emmanuel] Macron and the far-right of Marine Le Pen,” noted Rekker.
Omtzigt is polling high, but he has to keep voters focused on his core issue of structural reform. Voters may deem another issue more important, so the door is still wide open to other parties. The outcome on Nov. 22 will be significant not only for the Netherlands, but also for what it signals about the future of Dutchification across Europe.
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