The Dutch Are Rejecting Populism
AP Photo/Peter Dejong
The Dutch Are Rejecting Populism
AP Photo/Peter Dejong

Kaj Leers is the election campaign analyst for Dutch daily de Volkskrant. Follow him on Twitter @kajleers. The views expressed here are the author's own.

After the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the Brexit referendum in Great Britain, eyes now turn to a slew of elections taking place in Europe. The Dutch vote first, on March 15. The Netherlands is often seen as a bellwether for broader European political sentiment. This is the third installment in a series on the Dutch election.

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The Dutch nation-state as it exists today came into being in 1815 when the royal house of Orange was installed after the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Before that, the country was in many ways an experiment in statehood. Before the 80 Years’ War of independence (1568-1648), the territory now known as the Netherlands was always part of someone else’s empire, the last of them being the Spanish Habsburgs. After a long guerilla war the territory was ruled by a tumultuous succession of regents, stadtholders, and loose republics, only to end as a failed kingdom until the French rode in.

Dependent on trade

With the west of the country being basically a collection of river deltas, and with little in the way of natural resources, the Netherlands has always relied on trade -- and it still does. In 2015, exports accounted for 32.4 percent of gross domestic product, according to the Netherlands’ official statistics bureau.

This reality limits voters’ choices during elections. Retreat to a nationalist bulwark is hardly an option for a country that relies so heavily on exports, international trade, and cooperation. During the economic crisis of 2009-2012, and in all economic downturns before that, it was exports that kept the country’s economic engine running.

Exports made the Netherlands rich. These also include exports of abundant natural gas discovered in the 1950s. The resulting wealth helped postwar coalition governments run by Christian-democrats, social-democrats, and liberals (a term that in Europe refers to supporters of free markets and small government) establish an intricate redistributionist welfare system that is still regarded as one of the world’s best in terms of happiness creation, health care, education, infrastructure, and welfare.

Against this background, Dutch voters are concerned not so much about the current state of affairs, but about what they may stand to lose in the future.

“There Is No Alternative”

The dependency on international cooperation shared by all political parties in Parliament for decades enforced a kind of “There Is No Alternative” thinking in politics against which part of the population now rebels.

The strongest opponent of this cooperative internationalism is Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party. Wilders wants the Netherlands to leave the euro currency and the European Union altogether. He promises a “Nexit” referendum in imitation of the Brexit referendum that will take the United Kingdom out of the European Union.

Yet although questions about national and cultural identity are certainly an issue in the election campaign, all polls show a large combined majority for the parties with a more internationalist agenda. This is consistent with other polls that show a large majority of Dutch who prefer to stay in the European Union and in the euro.

In the elections of March 15, Wilders is expected to garner between 13 and 17 percent of the vote. The other votes will be going to the other parties.

Pressing issues

Dutch voters overall have more pressing concerns. First on their list is health care. The country’s population is graying quickly, making health care increasingly expensive. The government picks up part of the bill, paid for by taxes, while citizens also pay health care premiums to insurers. Those who are on lower incomes can apply for a premium subsidy.

A vast majority of voters want this system to remain in place. They would rather see the government go into debt than reform the existing system. Hence, almost all political parties competing for votes in this campaign either want to keep the health care system as it is, or spend even more money on it, not less. Either way, many voters want a new government to roll back some of the reforms the current governing coalition has made over the past four years.

The second-most important issue according to polls is social security; voters are especially concerned about the retirement age, which was raised to 67 from 65 and which many voters want lowered again. These concerns are followed by the fight against terrorism, and investments in education.

A normal election

In short, this election campaign is not turning out to be all that unique. Instead of the upheaval of populism that many outside observers expected to witness, moderate parties such as Groenlinks (an amalgam of former Communists and Greens) and D66 (a leftist-liberal party) are gaining in the polls, while the CDA (Christian-democrats) are also making up ground they lost in the last elections.

One reason for this is that the two parties leading the current coalition -- the social-democratic Partij van de Arbeid (Labor Party) and the free market-conservative VVD -- are shedding support because of unpopular reforms they undertook in the health care and social security sectors.

Meanwhile, the VVD -- itself considered a right-wing party -- has sought to turn the election into a two-way battle with Geert Wilders, who is decidedly on the right. Until this election, the VVD would pick a fight with a leftist party to draw in strategic votes from all other right-wing parties. In this campaign, the VVD has refused to pick a battle with a major left-wing party, and as such has given left-leaning voters no single party around which to rally.

As a result, voters on the left and the right are voting according to their political conscience. If current polls are any guide, the general election won’t be where most of the excitement happens. The real drama will play out as the next government coalition is formed: More than four parties will be needed to assemble a majority of 76 seats in the 150-seat Parliament.

Kaj Leers (1975) is a former financial journalist, election campaign analyst, political communications strategist and spokesman. Specializing on international affairs, Leers writes for RealClearWorld on European political affairs, the European Union, campaign strategy and macro-economics. COuntries in focus: The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, the United Kingdom. Follow him on (mostly Dutch, oftentimes in English).