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Elections in the Netherlands: How to unite the left and remain distinctive as social-democrats?

Klara Boonstra
Professor of International Labour Law

How to unite the left and remain distinctive as social-democrats? On March 15th, the Netherlands will vote for the representatives in the Lower Chamber of Parliament. And, like in so many other countries in Europe and abroad, the dark grey cloud of right-wing politics and populism, and an emphasis on what divides us rather than what connects us, is hovering over society. A record number of 28 parties will be participating in the elections. Plurality is not exceptional in the Netherlands, government is always formed by coalitions of parties, but this round many predict that at least four, maybe even five or six parties will be necessary for the next period.

The polls show that the political landscape is made up of two right-wing parties that could count for around 16 or 17 percent each. Those two parties are the conservative/liberals of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the far-right Party for Freedom (PVV). In the middle, we find five parties that are looking at percentages of between 9 and 12. This group consists of the Liberals, the Greens, the Socialists, the Christian-Democrats, and lagging a bit behind the others, us as the Labour Party. The rest of the parties stand at 5 percent or (far) less. These are, for a large part, one-issue parties. For instance, 50PLUS is a party for the elderly, THINK is a party that aims to attract immigrants’ votes and there is even a specific party for animal rights – Party for the Animals.

This highly fragmented picture with all these parties competing and stressing their differences to attract the attention of the voters is different from the current coalition of the VVD and the Labour Party. As opposites, in 2012 they decided to overcome their differences and form a program that could lead the country out of the economic crisis. This worked well, and was indeed either openly or tacitly supported by most of the other parties in the middle, as well as by societal organisations like trade unions and employers’ organisations. This coalition is the first one in a long time that will remain intact until the end of its four-year term, unlike the six coalitions in the ten years prior to this one. However, it seems as if now the Labour Party is paying the price for that cooperative attitude. Of course, these are just polls, but what they show is a shift from 25 to 9 percent. This is reminiscent of what happened to the Christian-Democrats who were the junior partner to the VVD in the coalition prior to this one, and lost by the same numbers in the last elections.

What is worrying is that this development seems to indicate that the bloc on the right is occupied by the conservative/liberal VVD and the far-right populist party PVV, with whom no other party is willing to form a coalition after its leader (and sole party member) has shown that he is highly unreliable. The former party can comfortably have its pick for junior partner(s), who, however, do run the risk of being sliced when they enter a coalition. Effectively this means that the other parties are, or allow themselves to be, constantly played off against each other. That is very unfortunate because on social subjects like the labour market, immigration, housing, welfare and care, they should be able to find, or at least search for, common ground.

An unexpected event may change that deadlock situation. One of the broadcasting companies had announced some months ago that only four parties would be invited to join in its much watched and influential television election debate. However, because the parties occupying numbers 3 to 8 in the polls were so close, the company withdrew that template. They rightfully did not want to risk influencing the elections and therefore announced that one or two more parties would be invited. The two largest parties acted like prima donnas and stated that they would not attend unless the former plan was reinstated. Instead of bending, the company decided to invite the parties from numbers 5 to 8. On February 26th, the five parties ‘in the middle’ will debate matters of their interest on television. And maybe, just maybe, this will allow them to find common social ground away from the dominant right-wing side of the politic spectre.

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