In normal times, the Dutch general elections would not make headline news around the world. But we are not in normal times. The Netherlands, for decades were considered one of the solid, stable, north European countries. That is no longer the case, as the crisis of world capitalism impacts on this small country.
Before the results of the Dutch elections were known, the European ruling class were asking themselves whether Geert Wilders' party, the PVV, would become the biggest party. This was also the question the many foreign journalists who flooded the country were asking. After all, with Brexit in the UK and Trump becoming President of the United States, anything could happen. This was what they feared and it was palpable in all their statements, articles and comments. Equally palpable was their relief when the Prime Minister Rutte's party VVD came in first.
After it became clear that Rutte's VVD party had come in first with 33 of the 150 seats (21.3%), the European rulers were overjoyed. Former president of the European parliament Martin Schulz tweeted he was delighted with the election result. Jean-Claude Juncker congratulated Rutte, calling on him to "build a strong Europe together." He is now hoping that Macron will win in the French presidential elections and Schulz/Merkel will win in Germany. They hope such victories will put a stop to the tide of right-wing populism spreading across Europe and beyond.
Geert Wilders' party, the PVV, came in second with 20 seats and 13.1% of the overall vote. This is better than its 2012 result when it won 15 seats and 10.1%, but it did not manage to return to its peak in 2010, when the party won 24 seats and 15.4% of the overall vote.
For the European ruling class this is seen as good news, as now there will be a broad coalition government with a more pro-EU character, something they desperately need in these times of uncertain global economic conditions.
Wilders has made a name for himself with his anti-Islamic and anti-refugee stance, calling for the banning of the Koran, the closure of mosques and Islamic schools, and stopping the entry of all refugees. He has demagogically used the cuts to healthcare spending to claim that “foreigners get free money, while our people have to suffer”. But it seems that this reactionary propaganda has started to wear thin, and after presenting himself for many years as the “anti-establishment” leader, he didn’t make the electoral inroads he was expecting.
Many potential PVV decided to vote for Rutte. The main element that contributed to this is to be found in the economy. Over the past two years there has been somewhat of a recovery. In March of last year unemployment stood at 6.4%, while now it has gone down to around 5% [source]. After two years of recession in 2012-13, the economy managed to achieve GDP growth above 2% over the past two years. Rutte was able to claim responsibility for this. His voters also feared – especially in the light of the Brexit vote – that a big PVV vote would destabilise the country and put at risk the economic recovery.
In the last few days before the elections, the "Turkey row" also played a role. The Dutch government wanted to restrict and regulate a visit by Erdogan's foreign minister who was campaigning among Turkish emigres for a yes-vote in a reactionary constitutional referendum. After a game of brinkmanship, neither of the two parties was prepared to submit to the other and the two governments clashed head-on. The Turkish minister was blocked from entering the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam and the police clashed with right-wing Turkish demonstrators.
The Dutch right-wing media was cheering at all this, as “we finally showed who the boss on our streets is”. This event strengthened reaction on both sides, with both Rutte and Erdogan gaining an advantage. While this was not the only factor, it certainly gave a last minute lift to Rutte.
Other significant developments were: the historic setback for the PvdA (the Dutch Labour Party), gains for the Christian-Democratic CDA and Liberal D66, a big gain for GroenLinks (Green Left) and stagnation for the SP (Socialist Party).
Setback for ruling coalition and collapse of Social Democracy
In spite of all the talk about economic recovery, however, Mark Rutte's ruling VVD-PvdA coalition has not been popular. The coalition parties saw their combined number of seats fall from 79 to 42. Most of this setback was due to the PvdA losing massively, with its biggest electoral defeat ever, going from 38 seats (24.8%) to 9 seats (5.7%).
The right-wing VVD in 2012 stated clearly it would introduce austerity measures to get the Netherlands out of the crisis. The social-democratic PvdA, however, opposed that in its electoral campaign, only to do a 180-degree turn the day after the elections and join the government as junior partner, thus sharing responsibility responsible for all the austerity, the cuts to healthcare spending and the introduction of student loans.
The VVD claims that the small upturn in the economy is thanks to the necessary evil of austerity policies and that because of this “for the coming decades” growth is back on the agenda. No other party challenges the assumption that the return of growth has been due to austerity measures and the VVD has been boasting about this as being their achievement.
The PvdA on the other hand was saying that “as there is finally growth again, this time we will really implement our 2012 programme”. Except for a few minor reforms, they have no achievements to boast about in this era of crisis and counter-reforms.
This explains the PvdA meltdown. It is part of a bigger picture, the more general crisis of reformism, which we have seen in other countries, such as in Greece with the PASOK, Spain (PSOE) and France (PS). As reformist parties can no longer implement a programme of reforms, in this era of capitalist crisis, they are facing a historical dilemma.
Throughout the whole country they failed to win a single council. In the big cities they lost their middle class and youth votes to the liberal-left parties D66 and GroenLinks. Their former base among second generation Turks and Moroccans was whittled away because of the PvdA’s turn to the right on immigration. They adopted a “tough” and more chauvinistic stance against immigrants, believing this would win back votes that had gone to the PVV. In the process, two Turkish-Dutch MPs left the party in order to set up Denk (Think), a multiculturalist party which has become quite sizeable in the big cities and won 3 seats in parliament. In spite of its platform of fighting discrimination, it is in fact a conservative party with ties to reactionary Turkish organisations.
Even in the northern province of Groningen, which has a strong socialist and communist tradition and which always voted PvdA in the past, the party lost to the PVV and the SP. The fact that it was in the government did not help the PvdA, while a mass movement had erupted up against the gas drillings in Groningen, which in recent years have led to earthquakes and damaged some houses. The Rutte government put the interests of oil and gas company NAM (owned by Shell and ExxonMobil) before the safety of the people of Groningen. The PvdA's role as junior government partner thus led to a drop in votes even in this traditional stronghold of the party.
This is the biggest defeat the party has ever suffered in its history. Those voters who remained loyal to the party are mainly older people. Of those who voted PvdA in these elections, 44% were above the age of 65. This is the price the party has paid for failing to offer any real alternative of the austerity put forward by Rutte.
Did populism lose?
After it became clear that Wilders had not made the breakthrough some feared, there were cheers that “populism has lost” both inside and outside the Netherlands. The unstoppable march of right-wing populism seems to have been halted on the shores of the European continent, with the EU now being safe, at least for the time being.
This, however, is not the whole story. It is true that Wilders failed to come in first, but his policies far from being pushed back, have been taken over by other parties. Mark Rutte called on people “who do not respect Dutch values” to leave the country. Another prominent member of his party, Halbe Zijlstra, said that “many refugees come to the Netherlands for free plastic surgery”. Rutte was one of the architects of the EU-Turkey deal to keep refugees out, and is seeking more such deals with North African countries.
The conservative CDA ran a right-wing campaign to win votes from potential PVV voters in small towns and rural districts. In the past they were the main bourgeois party with a conservative and a more “social” wing, linked to the Christian trade union federation. After years of decline, their social wing has evaporated and they now focus on right-wing populism, copying many of the PVV’s positions and calling for far-reaching security measures against “the threat of radical Islam”.
This means that the three biggest parties, at least partially, have adopted right-wing populist rhetoric. Then there is the new right-wing populist party, the Forum for Democracy, which is an outlet for the more “intellectual conservative” layers. Together these parties now have 64 seats, about 40% of parliament. While this is, of course, different from a big PVV victory, it means that in the coming years these parties will try to set the agenda with a lot of hysterical noise about security measures, radical Islam, the threat of disloyal citizens with double passports and the “threat to Dutch identity”.
Those parties explicitly opposing this right-wing populism, the D66 and GroenLinks, also grew. These parties are mostly an urban phenomenon, strong among the urban middle class. Many young people also vote for these parties, especially the students.
D66 is a so-called “progressive” liberal party, but is in fact an urban elite that wants to implement labour market deregulation and wants to whittle away at the fixed labour contracts won by the Dutch working class in years of struggle. It does this by saying that we need to re-define what “fixed” means. This is the nature of the liberal left; it opposes Wilders' nationalism with an urban free market cosmopolitanism which is equally opposed to the interests of the working class.
GroenLinks, on the other hand, has attracted many new young voters. The party has tried to “radicalise” its image with the new leading figure Jesse Klaver, who speaks about new hope and copies the image and rhetoric of Obama and Trudeau. In that sense its “radicalism” is false, but its electoral growth is not.
GroenLinks went from 4 seats (2.3%) to 14 seats (8.9%), an all-time record for the party. In Amsterdam it became the biggest party. Its “anti-populism”, pro-refugee and green politics resonate with a new layer of youth. In the past, Jesse Klaver supported counter-reforms, such as the introduction of student loans and labour market “flexibility”'. The new young voters have little or no memory of this. They will therefore have to learn what the true nature of Klaver is the hard way.
With the stagnation of the Socialist Party and the decimation of the PvdA, the arena has been prepared in the coming years for a “battle” between left-liberalism and right-wing populism. There will be debates similar to the Brexit discussions in Britain and the Clinton vs. Trump lesser-evilism discourse. Thus the real socio-economic issues will be put to one side while attacks on the working class will be on the order of the day, especially when the “new era of growth” stalls.
Stagnation of the Socialist Party
The left-reformist Socialist Party in theory should have been in a position to gain a lot, as there was a lot of disillusionment with the Rutte government and especially with the PvdA. This did not materialise, however. From 15 seats (9.6%) they lost one seat and went down to 14 seats (9.2%). This is far less than what they won in their historic 2006 victory, when they became the third party with 25 seats (16.6%).
When they were not allowed into the government after the 2006 elections, the leadership stated that the problem was that the party had been “too radical” and the programme was therefore toned down. The party has since run many local councils, often in coalition with right-wing parties. In the process, the party lost members and has never been to achieve the same electoral result again.
The party has thus stagnated, in spite of its many good activists and their campaigns for a National Health Service, for lower rents and for higher minimum wages and benefits, etc. It certainly had a good campaign, but the main focus on bread and butter issues was not enough.
Among young people the vote for the SP is below the national average. It is seen as a party for the old, the poor and the sick by many younger voters, even though, for example, it fights for the abolition of the student loan system.
The party tried to appease the PVV voters by not adopting a strong “pro-migrant” stance and staying “neutral” on many questions. The party is in favour of ending the free movement of labour for immigrant workers from Eastern Europe. Its position on the EU is vague, a mixture of left-reformism with chauvinistic elements. The SP emphasises the need for more police on the streets and uncritically supports everything the police unions come up with, while there are many problems of police violence and ethnic profiling of migrant youth.
Only towards the end did the party include in its electoral campaign the issue of discrimination. Meanwhile, many immigrant youth and anti-racist activists joined Denk or its split-off Artikel 1, not feeling at home with the SP.
In order to reverse the stagnation of the party what is required is a strong socialist and internationalist position. Appeasing the PVV-voter will not help at all. It only serves to strengthen the right-wing parties in general. The working class PVV voters need to be won over with socialist policies, not through nationalist policies.
Some other smaller parties saw some growth. The Partij voor de Dieren (Animal Rights Party) combines animal rights politics with a radical “no-growth” economic policy and a critique of the “mode of production”. Its growth from 2 to 5 seats is a sign of radicalisation of green voters, who are fed-up with the green liberalism of GroenLinks.
50PLUS, a demagogic party for "50+ people" managed to win some older people and grew from 2 to 4 seats. Earlier we mentioned the newcomers Denk and Forum for Democracy who obtained respectively 3 and 2 seats. One of the few constants in the election is the vote for the small Christian parties, who together got 8 seats.
Artikel 1, a more left-wing “intersectional” split-off from Denk, failed to win a seat, in spite of support from many anti-racist activists. The activists of this party need to understand the need to connect the struggle against discrimination with a clear socialist programme of transformation of society, and explain that discrimination is rooted in class society itself.
Mark Rutte will now have to form a government of four or five parties. Wilders did not win, but the next government will not be stable for long. It will be a broad coalition, probably including CDA and D66, and then bringing in also GroenLinks or the small Christian Union.
Once the government starts implementing its policies its apparent stability will begin to be undermined. One of the first measures they will introduce will be the new so-called “labour market reforms”. And when the “grand recovery” ends, we will see even more drastic cuts. That will mark the end of the honeymoon period for this government and also the end of the credibility of Mark Rutte himself, as it will become clear to all that the recent economic recovery was not due to him at all.
For the SP there will be opportunities, but it must change course. Instead of showing what a “pragmatic” party they are, they need to fight for a socialist programme. If they do not move left, the opposition will be fought on “cultural” lines by GroenLinks on the one hand and the PVV on the other.
As for the FNV trade union federation, that will also be affected by the electoral collapse the PvdA. With the PvdA in government, the union bureaucracy always felt they had a point of support and used this as an excuse not to mobilise. With this point of support melting away, they may be forced against their will to mobilise when the bosses start to attack the working class.
It is clear from all this that while the result may provide “stability” in the short term, in the long term nothing has been solved. We no longer live in “normal conditions”. The fundamental contradictions that flow from the crisis of world capitalism have not been removed. Through experience, over the coming years more and more working people and youth will come to understand that the problem is not one of growing “populism” which has a grip on certain layers of the population, but it is the system itself which is rotten to the core and needs to be done away with.
The Netherlands has entered a period of growing instability. The recent economic upturn has given some respite to the ruling class. But the Netherlands cannot escape the consequences of the more general crisis of capitalism affecting Europe and the world. This will force the government onto an anti-working class offensive, as it attempts to square the economic circle. In so doing it will aggravate the already unstable political and social equilibrium.
In the past, the Dutch working class won many concessions from the capitalists, achieving one of the highest standards of living in the world. This has now become a big headache for the Dutch bourgeois, for in the process of attempting to claw back those reforms, they will see the workers going back to their historical traditions of class struggle. In this situation, a Marxist Tendency with roots among the youth and the working class can become a powerful pole of attraction for the radicalised layers.