Farmers’ party wins big in provincial elections

Bathmen, The Netherlands - 15 March 2023: Politician Caroline van der Plas gives interviews to the press after her political party BBB wins the provincial elections.

The Farmer-Citizen Movement party (Dutch: Boer Burger Beweging, or BBB), led by Caroline van der Plas, came out on top in the recent provincial and water board elections. The current coalition parties, the liberal-conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), the Democrats 66 (D66), Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and Christian Union (CU) had a rude awakening after the elections. Their parties performed worse than expected and will now have to face the downstream effects of the provincial elections – not only at the provincial level, but also nationally.

Although the elections were on the provincial level throughout the Netherlands, they do have a huge impact on the national governance. While the members of the House of Representatives on the national level (Tweede Kamer) are voted in during the national elections, the members of the Senate (Eerste Kamer) are elected by the governments of the provinces. This makes the provincial elections important not only for the affairs of the individual provinces, but also for governing in The Hague.

Most polls and political pundits expected the right-leaning BBB to perform well, but its landslide victory in all provinces took most of the nation by surprise – including current Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose nitrogen reduction goals and other legislative plans are now in jeopardy. And to add to his woes, on Prime Minister Rutte’s left are the GreenLeft (GL) and the Labor Party (PvdA), who have decided to join forces in the national Senate – which is projected to make them the second largest party in that chamber. Not only is Rutte’s Senate coalition projected to lose 25% of its seats, but it’s also expected to become the third-largest party there.

Much like off-cycle elections in other countries, the provincial elections are sometimes considered a referendum on the current national government’s job. Judging from the results of the 2023 local Dutch elections and the fact that voter turnout was one of the largest in recent history, it seems that not everyone in the Netherlands is happy with how things are going.

The election results at the provincial level
The Netherlands is made up of twelve provinces, each with their own government of directly elected officials called the Provincial Council (Provinciale Staten). The number of seats of each province’s council ranges from 39 to 55, totaling 572 throughout all the provinces. Of those 572 collective seats, the BBB won a whopping 19.18% and became the largest party in all provinces except North and South Holland, where the BBB and the VVD each won eight seats.

These victories are even more remarkable when considering the party wasn’t even in existence during the last provincial elections in 2019 – when, incidentally, the far-right party FvD (Forum for Democracy) stunned the nation with large wins through the provincial elections. This time around, however, FvD did not do so well, losing 71 of its 86 seats – mostly to the new political superstar, the BBB.

Just like on the national level, the provincial councils will form coalition governments, usually with the largest party leading the talks. While the BBB received the most votes in ten of the twelve provinces, forming a coalition will not be easy in all provinces. In four provinces (Overijssel, Drenthe, Friesland and Groningen) BBB won 28% or more of the votes, which will likely make the coalition talks easier with other like-minded parties. But in other provinces, like North Brabant, North Holland, South Holland and Utrecht, forming a coalition between the winningest parties will likely be arduous and take much longer, since the elected parties are all over the political spectrum – from GL and PvdA on the left, to the VVD center-right.

The next milestone for the Provincial Councils is 30 May, when the Provincial Council members vote in the members of the Senate. Though their votes are not absolutely binding, it’s projected that the makeup of the 75 seats in the Senate will correspond with the distribution of total provincial council seats. This means that the three largest parties in the Senate are expected to be the right-learning BBB, the center-right VVD and leftist merger of GL and PvdA. The remaining parties are scattered across the political spectrum, and no one position – left, right or center – has enough votes to create a strong coalition. This means that – like on most of the provincial councils – each party in the Senate will likely need to compromise on many agenda items in order to get anything done. All of this is an incredible blow to the current VVD-led coalition in the upper chamber of the Dutch government.

Challenging times ahead
The Dutch electorate spoke loud and clear: they want a change in The Hague. They heard the calls for change from the new political party that was born out of a grassroots movement and led by an unlikely political figure, agricultural journalist Caroline van der Plas. The grassroots movement was led by farmers protesting Prime Minister Rutte’s government’s plans to slash nitrogen deposition, starting with the Dutch agriculture sector. Farmers protested by blocking highways and riding their tractors through the streets of major cities, including The Hague.

The protesters were angry that their sector was, in their eyes, unfairly targeted, while other industries – including specific companies, such as Tata Steel in IJmuiden – are left to continue polluting the environment and emitting CO2gasses at industrial levels. While these are valid arguments that should be seriously discussed at the national level (and have been by Mrs Van der Plas, who currently holds only one seat in the Tweede Kamer), the issue of farmers’ rights and dissatisfaction with the current government seem to have been the two points that won over the voters. Will the BBB be able to develop quickly enough on the provincial level to be effective leaders? There’s no playbook for such a young party to take on such large and broad leadership roles throughout the country, at multiple levels of government.

The BBB will have additional challenges at the provincial level. These large wins – three times as high as expected in some areas – will require the newly elected BBB council members to have an accelerated learning curve when it comes to actually governing. All new provincial council members were sworn in in the last week of March, with most of the BBB members learning on the job. There will also be challenges for the provinces and the country as a whole. With the BBB winning so many seats in the provinces, this means that farmers will have more influence in politics. However, with less than 10% of the Dutch population living in rural areas, this means that the farmers, through the BBB, will have a disproportionate amount of political might. Additionally, right-wing parties usually do well in the rural areas, but in urban areas voters opted mostly for the pro-environmental parties, particularly GreenLeft. This balancing act will no doubt lead to more heated discussions about environment versus the agriculture sector, and other popular themes – migration and Euroscepticism are hot topics in national politics, on which the left- and right-wing parties do not agree at all.

Lasting parties
New political parties form often in the Netherlands. Some are splinter parties from existing parties, for example the right-wing PVV and JA21, while some are born from grassroots movements, like BBB. While it’s nice that the political system in the Netherlands allows for a broad range of parties that represents the broad will of the diverse constituents, at times it can be a little confusing, especially for expats. A new party that speaks to the voters at one particular moment in time might be the big winner of that election, only to find its number dwindle in the next election of importance – like Forum for Democracy going from 14.53% in 2019 to 3.06% just four years later. Will the BBB be able to stay the distance with the ever-changing issues that the Netherlands is dealing with? And how well will the new party be at creating coalition governments that span multiple parties across the political spectrum? Time will tell and it will start telling soon with the election of the national senators just around the corner.

Region water boards
For the regional water board elections, the BBB was the also the biggest party in 13 of the 21 water boards. It won almost 23% of the water board seats that were available. Second and third were the left-wing Water Natuurlijk and the Party for the Animals (PvdD). Again, the opposing views of these parties may lead to governing difficulties in the water boards.

Written by Marla Thomson