By Andrew Firmin
LONDON, Dec 4 2023 (IPS)
The Netherlands is the latest country to lurch to the right amid the global cost of living crisis. Its November election saw maverick far-right populist Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV) come first. A hardline Islamophobe who’s called for the Quran to be banned could be the next prime minister.
Change – of what kind?
Change always looked on the cards – the only question was what kind. Since 2010, outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte pieced together governing coalitions after four elections – no mean feat given highly fragmented politics in which numerous parties take seats.
Rutte even bounced back from resigning in 2021 following a scandal over mass false fraud accusations against child benefit claimants, only to come first in the election. But his last government split when other parties rejected his proposal to tighten restrictions on the right of asylum seekers to be joined by family members. Rutte announced he wouldn’t run again.
Suddenly the election had a fresh look. Rutte’s party, the People’s Party for Freedom for Democracy (VVD), had a new leader, Dilan Yeşilgöz, who arrived in the Netherlands as a child refugee and hoped to become the country’s first female prime minister. The New Social Contract (NSC) party, founded in August, sought to capitalise on anger at government scandals and for a time rode high in the polls. On the centre-left, the Green and Labour parties joined forces (PvdA-GL) under former European Commission vice president Frans Timmermans.
But it was Wilders who capitalised. The result suggests that multiple government scandals and the high cost of living haven’t just dented trust in the parties involved – but in politics in general. That generated a protest vote for Wilders.
Another important factor was a strong campaign focus on immigration – and not just by Wilders. NSC and VVD also called for tougher limits on asylum seekers. But all this played into Wilders’s hands. Evidence suggests that when election campaigns centre on immigration, people are tempted to back the party that has banged the drum the longest, rather those seen as seizing on the issue opportunistically.
The Dutch election is the latest that points to bigger trends. The first is a broad rejection of incumbents during a time of high cost of living. Time and again, ruling parties are being punished for the financial squeeze and people are more willing to give alternatives a go. In the Netherlands, all four parties in the outgoing government lost support.
There’s also a longer-term trend in Europe of right-wing populist and nationalist parties building up electoral respectability over the years. Tipping points can come after years of efforts to normalise the standing of parties once considered extreme. The Dutch result came in the wake of far-right parties heading the government in Italy, winning elections in Switzerland, joining the governing coalition in Finland, propping up the government in Sweden and surging in support in France and Germany.
In many European countries, far-right politicians have tilted the political centre ground towards them. Established parties have adopted their discourse, most often by promising hardline migration policies. This has two effects: far-right parties succeed without needing to win power, because they influence policies, but it also boosts their chances of success, since it enables them to fight elections on their strongest territory.
Wilders is no new arrival. He first entered parliament in 1998 before splitting from VVD to form his own party over the issue of Turkey’s potential European Union (EU) membership. PVV came third in elections in 2010, 2012 and 2021, and second in 2017. In 2010, after taking over 15 per cent of the vote, PVV agreed to support Rutte’s first government.
Now that long campaign of normalisation appears to have paid off. Wilders has continued to offer simplistic solutions to complex problems, and they resonate with people who don’t see their lives getting any better. Migrants and the country’s racial and religious minorities are scapegoated, blamed for genuine problems like high prices, affordable housing shortages and education and healthcare problems.
Bad news on climate
The result also augers bad news for the climate.
The Netherlands is home to two distinct currents. One is an increasingly active climate movement insisting that the government end fossil fuel industry subsidies, with the demand communicated through non-violent direct action. Campaigners have repeatedly blocked a major highway and Dutch authorities have reacted with rising repression. When around 25,000 people took part in an action on 9 September, the police used water cannon and detained some 2,400 people. Undeterred, tens of thousands marched through Amsterdam in November to demand climate action.
On the other side stands the farmers’ lobby. The Netherlands is an agricultural powerhouse, but the industry causes almost half the country’s nitrogen emissions, a greenhouse gas and air pollutant. A 2019 Supreme Court ruling ordered that emissions be cut, entailing lower livestock numbers. In response farmers have staged disruptive protests, including through roadblocks, although compared to climate protesters, relatively few have been arrested.
The farmers’ protests were given an electoral voice in 2019 through the formation of the Citizen-Farmer Movement (BBB), which calls for an end to emissions cuts. It came first in provincial elections in March, making it the biggest party in the Senate, parliament’s second chamber.
Wilders clearly isn’t on the climate movement’s side. He’s promised to rip up environmental regulations, downplay international agreements and increase oil and gas extraction.
Months of negotiations will determine who the next prime minister is. Wilders says he wants the job, and the convention is that the largest party provides the prime minister, although he’s not certain to prevail. Negotiations haven’t got off to the best start: Wilders appointed what’s known as a ‘scout’ to talk to various party leaders, but his appointee quickly had to resign over fraud allegations.
A right-wing coalition looks the most likely. BBB is the most enthusiastic potential partner and NSC has indicated it might be willing to join a coalition. VVD has ruled out being part of any cabinet, saying it would only support confidence and spending votes, but this could be a negotiating tactic.
As prime minister, Wilders might disappoint his supporters. He’d likely have to rein in his usual bluster. Coalition partners would insist that his most extreme policies be dropped, among them any move to take the Netherlands out of the EU. Some plans would likely be unconstitutional anyway, violating religious freedom guarantees.
Beyond this, the current trend may be cyclical. It’s harder to position as anti-establishment outsiders once power has been won and deceptively simple solutions have failed, although as Donald Trump has shown, it isn’t impossible. But it may be significant that one of the rare recent setbacks for right-wing populist and nationalist parties has come in Poland, where many voters saw the Law and Justice party as the political establishment and blamed it for the high cost of living. The wheel can turn.
The problem is that much damage is done during a regressive spell: to the rights of minorities and excluded groups, with political rhetoric invariably normalising hatred and violence, and to civic freedoms, which are always attacked. There’s also the danger that a vanishing window to act on the climate will be missed.
It can’t simply be a matter of waiting for this time to pass. Civil society and progressive forces must offer ideas that speak to people’s current anxieties and frustrations, based on a narrative where a better future for some doesn’t come at the expense of the rights of others.