Dutch Treat: The General Election of March 2017 and the Populist Vote
The Dutch general election on March 15 generated enormous media attention all over the world. It seemed as though democracy was at stake. After the Brexit vote in the U.K. and Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S., commentators wondered if the populist vote would get the upper hand in Holland, too. As soon as it became evident from the exit polls that the populist party of Geert Wilders was not going to be the biggest, the international media packed up their equipment and headed for some other hotspot.
The turnout was 81.9% with 10,563,456 voters (Holland is a tiny country with a population of just over 17 million), choosing among 28 (!) different parties—13 of which got enough votes to get one or more of the 150 seats in parliament.1 Among low-skilled workers between 18 and 34 the turnout was only 48%, while 85% of the highly educated voted; low-skilled workers older than 55 years had a turnout of 82%, and 95% of their highly educated peers cast their vote. This shows that large numbers of workers did not care to vote; others voted for the populist party (see below).
The VVD (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie, or People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy), a conservative party headed by Mark Rutte, the prime minister in the previous government, turned out to get the most votes, though it lost 8 seats (dropping to 33). Geert Wilders’s party won 5 seats, climbing to 20. This means that the populists, despite a sizeable gain, will not be allowed to take part in the next government. Their voters, though, are more frustrated than before (there was even talk of fraud at the ballot box, unheard of until now).
A coalition of several parties is required to get a majority (76 seats) in parliament. Holland has had coalition governments, consisting of two or more parties, ever since the party system was established at the end of the 19th century.2 This means that big changes are very unlikely to happen; no sudden transformations will occur in the political power structure: small steps for mankind are giant leaps in Holland. Since, of course (!), all parties that are invited to the negotiation table when a new coalition government is to be formed behave responsibly—having only the best interests of the country at heart—the Dutch state follows a steady course and Dutch society is a rare example of continuity and social quiet.
The last government—in power from 2012 until sometime in 2017 (when the current negotiations will have led to the formation of a new government)—was formed by two parties, the conservative VVD (41 seats) and the social-democratic Labor Party (Partij van de Arbeid, PvdA), with 38 seats. The main objective of this government was to reduce the huge deficit in public finances resulting from the global economic crisis. To this end harsh austerity measures were introduced, basically ruining the welfare state that had been built after the Second World War.
The welfare state was established as a Dutch variation on the American New Deal between the government (in which the social-democrats played a very important role), the trade unions, and the workers: in return for social peace and high production the government took care of decent living conditions: high employment, wages that would afford more luxury, affordable housing and health care, pensions, a better future for the children, etc. For example, unemployed workers received 70% of the previous wage, paid from a fund financed only by employers. Health insurance covered all health-related costs, and paid 70% of wages when you are ill; prolonged illness could lead to a disability allowance. In 2006, this system was reorganized, resulting in much higher expenses, to such a degree that more and more workers do not visit the doctor or take medicine. While wages are still set by collectively bargained agreements between employer organizations and the unions, today more and more immigrant workers from eastern European countries like Poland—and also refugees—are replacing Dutch workers because they are willing to work many more hours than permitted by collective agreements for much lower wages.
In general, the recent economic crisis is used by employers and politicians to radically reshuffle social relations and to cut labor costs drastically. Under the pretext of the “inevitable” economic consequences of globalization, in which only a strong and united Europe can survive, workers’ rights are flushed down the toilet. This, of course, is an international development that has been going on for many years and is getting worse by the day. The consequences of all this at the ballot box were dramatic, with the VVD loosing 8 seats and the PvdA losing 29. In the new parliament, this party only has 9 seats left. These results reflect a tendency that has been developing for many years, leaving respectable analysts to wonder what is happening to the country. Like the attack on workers’ living and working conditions, it is an international tendency. Look, for instance, at Labour in Great Britain and the Parti Socialiste in France.
The Netherlands has always been a country where religious groups had a strong, not to say overwhelming, influence. In these last elections four different parties calling themselves “Christian” took part, three of which got seats, 27 in total. Only the new party “Jesus Lives” didn’t make it, having won only 3,099 votes. But, thank God, their numbers are decreasing, reflecting, among other things, the increasing number of people who no longer base their lives and political views on the Bible or other holy books. The biggest Christian party, the CDA (Christen-Democratisch Appel, Christian Democratic Appeal), has dropped from around 50% off all votes just after World War II to just over 12% in the latest elections (see chart).3
For many years, there have been so-called protest parties: parties that attract voters who are dissatisfied with the “regular” political parties. In the Netherlands the best known was the party of the xenophobic rightist Pim Fortuyn, who was shot in 2002 (the first political assassination in the Netherlands since 1625!); during the last decade it is Geert Wilders’s PVV (Partij voor de Vrijheid, Freedom Party), founded in 2006. Wilders is voicing a deep-rooted sense of distrust and disgust among workers, a feeling that is so widespread in the Western world that it can only be understood by looking at the deteriorating living conditions of ever growing numbers of the working class.
The specific circumstances in the U.S. and the various countries in Europe differ a lot, but they have in common an immense loss of jobs during recent decades, deteriorating working conditions, and a general decline in welfare, including a prospect for their children that is beginning to look like the one their (grand) parents had in the 1930s. This is illustrated by an article in the April 2017 World Economic Outlook, published by the International Monetary Fund, under the halfhearted title “Gaining Momentum?”; “Understanding the Downward Trend in Labor Income Shares”:
documents the downward trend in the labor share of income since the early 1990s. […] Technological progress, reflected in the steep decline in the relative price of investment goods, along with varying exposure to routine-based occupations, explains about half the overall decline in advanced economies, with a larger negative impact on the earnings of middle-skilled workers.
While I speak of the welfare state having been ruined in the Netherlands, I understand that many workers in the U.S. and other countries will still consider this country a social heaven. But wealth and poverty are relative. In 2016, 40% of the Russian population—to mention a country with a rather peculiar development over the last 100 years—had less to spend than $282 per month (so they are now “officially” considered poor). On the other hand, Russia’s ruling class can pride itself in now counting 98 billionaires (despite the sanctions imposed on the country) who own a total of $460 billion. The two superpowers of old seem to be involved in a race to the bottom in relation to taking care of their respective populations. Wherever you look, the great divide is getting greater all over the world.
The social antagonisms are getting bigger and deeper, and the various social groups are split. In the Netherlands, many workers dislike Muslims and refugees because they “steal” jobs and housing, because they treat women differently than regular (i.e. “white”) Dutchmen, because their women dress differently, because they commit terrorist attacks. If you talk to people, it is clear that they know that not all Muslims are like that (exactly as in the U.S. almost everybody knows that not all Mexicans are thieves and rapists), but still, the anger is so overwhelming that there is little or no room for subtlety, or for open discussion.4 It is very likely that this development—that groups within the working class face each other head-on—will continue, and that this split will continue to be used to worsen everyone’s working and living conditions. Whether this finally results in a realization that the only solution is a drastic transformation of this society into one based not on making money but on addressing social needs, remains to be seen.
Populist parties will grow, as long as workers get more and more desperate and keep placing their fate and future in the hands of these “leaders.” The four parties negotiating to form a new government in the Netherlands are reluctantly admitting that they have a big problem with angry workers—not only with “white” workers, but also those with Turkish or Moroccan backgrounds. None of these four parties represents the angry, low-skilled voters who think that Holland is going in the wrong direction. Two represent the highly educated, optimistic voters who live in big cities, such as Amsterdam, Utrecht, the Hague, and Rotterdam; the other two attract more low-skilled voters who live in rural areas; but these, too, in general have an optimistic view about the future. These parties know, however, that if they don’t reach out in some way to the angry voters, Geert Wilders’s PVV is very likely going to be the biggest party in the next elections.5 Not to mention the likelihood of growing social tensions that may easily erupt into fights between different strata of the working class, only to add to the general misery of all.
- As a rule, there are general elections every 4 years. In case of a crisis in government or when a government is sent home by parliament, new elections can be organized (hence the charts have many more “election years” than one would expect).
- The reason for this is the electoral system in which all votes that have been cast are added up; this time a party needed over 70,000 votes to get one seat: 10,563,456 divided by 150 seats. This explains why so many, small parties have seats in parliament. In countries like Germany and Belgium, that also have so-called proportional representation, there is an electoral threshold that implies that only parties that have at least 5% of the votes get seats in parliament. If this were the case in Holland, 6 parties that now get two to five seats would not be represented. The U.S., Great Britain, and France have a “winner takes all” system. In France, the Front National of Marine Le Pen gets about 30 to even 40% of the votes in “rural areas,” i.e. outside the big cities, but only has two seats in the Assemblée Nationale. In this way, a large portion of voters is not represented in parliament, adding to social unrest and anger. In the Netherlands part of this social anger is absorbed by the system and in that way is rendered harmless. This makes a very strong case for proportional representation, despite its “inefficiency,” as some call it: all parties can have their say and the powers that be simply move on.
- CDA itself emerged from the merger of a Catholic party with two Protestant parties. For many years, these three parties had been independent and big but gradually they lost influence (well, voters, anyway). In an attempt to cling to power, they merged in 1977. In the chart, I have added up their numbers.
- The reason almost everybody in the industrialized world supports these ideas is not that they are stupid. We live in a capitalist society in which, obviously, the bourgeoisie is the ruling class. Therefore the bourgeois ideology is the leading one and most people adhere to it. This does not mean that ideas cannot change: once workers start acting themselves their ideas and opinions change, very often very rapidly and very radically (cf. the uprisings of 1953 in East Germany and of 1956 in Hungary).
- NRC Handelsblad, April 8, 2017.
NICK VOS used to work as a professional librarian and is now retired. In 2011 he finished his PhD on the construction of the welfare state in the Netherlands; currently he is writing a book about social relations in the Dutch textile industry during the Great Depression in order to understand the reactions of the factory owners and the workers to this until then unprecedented crisis.