Between COVID and charisma
Karin van Leeuwen, assistant professor in European political history, on how the Netherlands will almost inevitably vote for more of the same and how a consensus-driven political system still makes for an intriguing spectator sport.
“It feels like it hasn’t really started yet,” says Karin van Leeuwen, speaking as a voter as much as a political history scholar. “Because of all the restrictions around COVID-19, there is not a lot of canvassing, no interaction between party representatives and citizens. And the news cycle is, understandably, dominated by the pandemic.”
Coherent political campaigning along parties’ traditional identities has fallen victim to the narrow news agenda. “At the beginning of 2020, climate change was starting to be accepted as one of the most pressing issues of our time - but there’s no platform for it. GroenLinks [green left party] for example are really strong on this but they’d lose out on media coverage if they focused on it.”
Parties are positioning themselves relative to the pandemic rather than addressing the topics more naturally integral to their fabric. “Socioeconomic questions like inequality and redistribution aren’t politicised in the way you’d expect – to the detriment of left-of-centre parties.
The looming elections might have informed Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s hesitancy to impose restrictive measures on the electorate throughout the past year. Yet, even though an unpopular curfew was imposed eventually, Van Leeuwen can’t see anything but a return to power of Rutte’s governing conservative-liberal party VVD.
“Many journalists have observed that Rutte is very good at drawing attention and positioning himself as a strong leader across different debates and shifting positions. Whether libertarian, interventionist or xenophobic, he knows how to adopt a ‘pragmatic’ position of the flavour of the day. In 2017, Rutte reacted to the success of the anti-immigration PVV with an open letter telling Muslims to ‘act normal or go away’.”
The Netherlands’ party-political landscape means that there is usually a coalition in government. A whopping 37 parties will be on the menu this election; 13 currently hold seats in the House of Representatives. Once a coalition is formed, participating parties, at least nominally, take and carry decisions together. With elections nearing, however, they have to jockey for position – also relative to the other government parties.
Junior coalition partners usually have to compromise on core promises to voters – and accordingly tend to poll worse after having been in government. “In the last decade we’ve seen coalition partners lose and the VVD growing stronger. The CU [Christian Democrats, current coalition partner] might struggle a bit less because they have a stable denominational basis, but it is a very prominent pattern.”
“The previous coalition partner, the PvdA [Labour] tried to buck the trend through a nuanced campaign: they explained the political process, especially the compromises involved in being the junior partner.” Van Leeuwen, a member of the party herself, appreciated the campaign’s realism – but the PvdA suffered an electoral wipeout. “The voters might have preferred to hear grand promises – but that’s a problematic trend too.”
This consensus-driven system, in which the negotiations leading up to the coalition agreement are more exciting than the elections themselves, is “one of the frustrating but intriguing things about Dutch politics.” But there is a tension with Van Leeuwen’s previous point. “There’s always the question: What coalitions are possible? Can you govern without the populist parties?”
Rutte’s first coalition cabinet was propped up by the controversial PVV, founded and led by Geert Wilders, probably the country’s most well-known politician internationally. Commanding a sizeable chunk of the vote, the PVV is perpetually both potential kingmaker and poisoned chalice. “If you want to govern without them, you might need to form a coalition with four parties – which means an incredible amount of negotiations.”
Populist snacks, pragmatic staples
The FvD is another far-right populist party that politicians fall over themselves to denounce. “They are new and talked about a lot. Have they been racist? How racist exactly? There’s a race among politicians to say how disgusted they are… Of course, that’s important, but you could argue that the attention is disproportionate, that it happens at the expense of debates that are more relevant to voters.”
Like the PVV, the FvD is more or less synonymous with their charismatic leader. The idea of new parties organised around one personality is relatively new: “At the beginning of the millennium, Pim Fortuyn formed his own party – he was murdered before the election but the party still got enough seats to get into the governing coalition.” Without their charismatic leader, the party quickly crumbled – but it has set an important precedent.
“You can see the advantage populists have over traditional structured parties. Wilders has a lot of power and can do what he likes – he can react very quickly to current affairs and make outrageous proposals, whereas in the PvdA, for example, everything is discussed forever with all the members. This internal filter also moderates radical positions that would get more news coverage.”
Van Leeuwen relies on historic precedent to assuage her own concerns about the rising tide of populism: after all, the reaction to the charismatic arch-provocateur Fortuyn was the eight-year reign of Jan Peter Balkenende – the unenthusiastic answer to the question: what if Harry Potter had grown up to pursue a middle-management career in accounting. For all the thirst for colourful characters, the Dutch electorate continues to appreciate pragmatism above charisma.
Karin van Leeuwen is Assistant Professor of European political history at the Faculty of Arts and Social Science