Friday, December 8, 2023

How the Dutch election may buck Europe’s populist trend – DW – 11/21/2023

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With only a few days to go until the Dutch election, a surprising number of voters on the streets of the small southern city of Tilburg on Thursday had not made up their minds.

“I still need to read up,” Pleun, a 23-year-old economics student who declined to give her surname, told DW in the shopping district of the majority-Catholic town, once renowned for its wool industry. “These elections are very important because now a lot of things will change.”

At the very least, the Netherlands is set to get a new premier. Mark Rutte of the center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), who has served as prime minister since 2010, is stepping down. Across the spectrum, there are many new faces at the helm of major parties.

Moreover, three big party forces are polling almost neck-and-neck, making a wide range of coalitions in the kaleidoscopic multiparty Dutch system possible after the vote on November 22. 

Even voters with many more elections under the belt, like 72-year-old librarian Rien Vissers, aren’t totally sure. He himself is undecided between the center-left alliance of GroenLinks and Labor (PvdA), polling third, and the Christian democratic CDA, set to take a drubbing.

Rein Vissers, a Tilburg local, standing in the city center
Tilburg local Rien Vissers was one of several Dutch voters who told DW he still hadn’t made up his mindImage: Ella Joyner/DW

“I actually think that it would be good for a more left-wing government to come in after all these years,” Vissers told DW in Tilburg. “On the other hand, the CDA are having a very difficult time, but they are a good center party with a lot of experience in government.”

Back to the future with Pieter Omtzigt

Viewed from the outside, the standout story of this Dutch election season has been the emergence of New Social Contract (NSC), a conservative, centrist but anti-establishment party founded in August by popular former CDA lawmaker Pieter Omtzigt.

The 49-year-old made a name for himself helping to expose the full extent of a child benefits scandal, which saw tens of thousands of parents falsely accused of fraud, often with devastating financial and personal consequences. Working with lawmakers from different parties, Omzigt’s tenacity alienated him from his party but endeared him to the public.

According to Leonie de Jonge, a political scientist from the University of Groningen, Omtzigt has built a strong profile “of being the watchdog of the government, being very feisty in parliament and asking the right questions, biting into documents, and really not letting go until he knows the answer.”

Mark Rutte waves as he sits in the driver's seat of his car
After 13 years in office, Mark Rutte is not seeking reelectionImage: ROBIN UTRECHT/ANP/picture alliance

NSC, which, again, has only existed for a few months, is currently joint first in opinion polls with Rutte’s VVD at 18%, according to news outlet Politico, though Omtzigt has indicated he is not necessarily gunning for the premiership himself.

“He’s very much trusted,” de Jonge told DW. “And we in the Netherlands are experiencing a period of distrust in politicians after all the scandals that have happened.”

Omtzigt seems able to regenerate trust, with people seeing him “as sort of a reasonable alternative to the status quo,” she said.

Anti-establishment appeal, without populism

One Tilburg resident who has already decided to vote for Omtzigt is 67-year-old Maarten van den Tillaart.

“Pieter’s got a new sound,” the former CDA local councilor told DW at a small political debate between candidates. “He’s an honest politician. We have seen that in the past years.”

Given the Dutch public’s trust issues, one might expect voters to swing toward figures that position themselves as outsiders to a corrupt elite — a classic marker of populism. Indeed, the far-right populist Freedom Party, led by staunchly anti-Islam Geert Wilders, is currently fourth in the polls with 13% — more than its last result in 2021, but less than in 2017.

 Posters for political parties are displayed near the Dutch parliament building is pictured on November 19, 2023 in The Hague, Netherlands.
Current polling has the larger parties almost neck and neckImage: Carl Court/Getty Images

Omtzigt’s party is not of the same ilk, although he does position himself as speaking up for common people.

“[The NSC’s] ideology is not populist, but they do represent very much a movement that is dissatisfied with the established political system,” said Simon Otjes of Leiden University. “It’s important to note that extremism and populism don’t necessarily go together,” he added, pointing to other European examples like Italy’s 5-Star Movement.

‘Riding the populist wave’

De Jonge sees things similarly to Otjes. “[Omtzigt] seems to be riding the populist wave, because he’s sort of anti-establishment, but coming from the establishment,” she said.

What is interesting about Omtzigt for de Jonge is that he has attracted voters from the left, the center-right and the far right. “That’s what makes him so powerful,” she added.

Omtzigt’s prominence on the political landscape has also helped contribute to a calmer tone during this election season, she said, as well as a greater focus on content.

The last election was held during the COVID pandemic in 2021. “The campaign then was very personalized, it was centered around leadership. Rutte ran with no content, but really just on his person [sic.], saying I’m the right leader to steer this ship through this crisis,” she said.

A collection of election posters in The Hague
The Netherlands has a kaleidoscopic range of parties, but elections generally deliver center-right governmentsImage: Piroschka van de Wouw/REUTERS

Personal style aside, Omtzigt’s exact politics are quite hard to pin down — to the right on migration, but more to the left on welfare. On many issues, they are fairly ambiguous, according to de Jonge, perhaps unsurprisingly given how new Omtzigt’s party is.

NSC’s electoral program outlines plans to try to limit net inward migration to 50,000 people a year, around half what it was in 2021.

“We want fewer people to come here for asylum, study or work,” party material states.

NSC also wants to build a lot of housing (a major issue in this election) and tackle cost-of-living problems for poorer families.

A recipe for Europe?

With EU elections on the horizon for June 2024, the bigger question is whether Omtzigt’s ascendancy can tell us anything about European politics more generally. Support for populist parties, mainly right-wing but also to the left, has been on the rise in Europe. Recent elections in Italy and Sweden underlined that trend, with far-right Brothers of Italy and Sweden Democrats faring well.

Far-right parties on the rise across Europe

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Unfortunately for those hoping for a crystal ball or looking for a playbook to follow, both Otjes and de Jonge strongly caution against seeing Omtzigt’s success as prescient for Europe more broadly.

“To me this is a story about a very specific Dutch politician with a very specific political style,” said Otjes. “It isn’t for me a story that will travel well.”

It is also worth noting that anything is possible after Wednesday. The new leader of outgoing premier Rutte’s party, Dilan Yesilgoz, has indicated more willingness to work with Wilders than Rutte did, for example, de Jonge noted.

Pleun, the economics student in Tilburg, sees these elections as higher stakes than previous ones. She will take much more time to read up before casting her vote this time.

“I’m also very curious what the result will be,” she said. “It’s very open and I don’t think anybody knows how it will end. It’s kind of exciting, actually.”

Edited by: Carla Bleiker

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