A political landslide in the Netherlands

On March 20, the Netherlands witnessed a momentous, record-breaking and greatly influential election. A political earthquake has turned the Dutch Senate into a place hostile to any new policy and programs the current government might propose. In order to get anything done, Prime Minister Mark Rutte will have to depend a great deal on two young men: the leaders of the political parties Forum for Democracy, Thierry Baudet (1983), and the GreenLeft Party, Jesse Klaver (1986).

In any other year, the simultaneously-held elections for the Dutch Water boards and Provincial Councils would have been a rather boring affair. The public chooses the regional government bodies that are in charge of water management, waterways, water levels, water quality and sewage treatment. These quintessentially non-political and highly technical water boards are actually among the oldest institutions of the Dutch state system.

The meteoric rise of Baudet

During the same election, the Dutch also choose their representatives on the provincial level. Usually, provincial politics are not very exciting or passionate, as they are mostly concerned with spatial planning, traffic, transport and the environment. But the 570 members of the Provincial Councils also elect the members of the Dutch Eerste Kamer (Senate). The Senate has a crucial role in legislation, since it has to approve any new law that has been passed by the Tweede Kamer (House of Representatives). These two chambers together form the Dutch parliament. But whereas the role of the 75-seat Senate has historically been non-political and mostly technical, in recent years it has started to resemble the noisy and hyper-political 150-seat House.

The Water board and Provincial Council elections usually don’t create many shockwaves, but last month was different. The largest percentage of the voting population in 30 years made its way to the polls: 56 percent. But more importantly, Thierry Baudet catapulted his Forum for Democracy from zero to thirteen seats, becoming the largest party in the Senate, one seat above above Mark Rutte’s VVD. In Dutch parliamentary history, that is unprecedented. The new star of the nationalist and populist right, the 35-year old Baudet is seen as the political heir of Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders (see here a Holland Times profile article about Baudet). Many see in the firebrand the next prime minister of the country.

The other surprising, although not as spectacular, election result is that the Green Party is continuing its steady march upward under the leadership of 32-year-old Jesse Klaver. In last month’s elections, it went from four Senate seats to nine. Klaver is a charismatic politician, who, like Baudet is able to draw large crowds and efficiently use social media to gain new followers, but that’s where the similarities end. Unlike Baudet’s populist rightwing fervor, Klaver uses moderate language and aims for a political agenda that is very much left of center. The two young men could not be more ideologically different: to Klaver, climate change is the single-most important issue facing humanity, where Baudet denies that humans have anything to do with climate change, if it exists at all.

Stuck in the middle

All this leaves Dutch Prime Minister Rutte in a bit of a pickle. His third government rests on a shaky four-party, slightly right-off-center coalition basis. All four governing parties have lost seats in the Senate, mostly to Forum for Democracy. And the party leadership of all four is becoming increasingly nervous about the meteoric rise of the philosophy-reading, Latin-quoting wunderkind. The VVD, for years the largest in national politics, only lost one seat in the Senate, but not being the largest anymore feels like a defeat. The consequences for governmental policy are big, tangible and immediate.

Before the elections, the governing parties were aiming to become the greenest cabinet ever. Although the ‘climate tables’, which had taken place over the last year and involved many groups across society, had collapsed at the end of last year (read more here), they had recently restarted – tentatively. The coalition is supposed to present its final climate agreement this month, but many in the coalition parties are having cold feet. Senators from the second-largest governing partner CDA, which dropped from twelve to nine seats in the Senate, are starting to voice doubts about an ambitious climate policy and say that the plans need to be looked at again. Baudet’s victory is seen by the CDA as a kind of ‘climate revolt’ among voters, after Baudet strongly criticized the climate law which stipulates that CO2 emissions in the Netherlands must be down 95 percent in 2050.

Green right over left?

However, the other coalition partner, Democrats 66, which lost four of its ten Senate seats, very much has a stake in making Rutte III the greenest government ever. D66 party leader Rob Jetten (32) immediately after the elections ruled out any kind of cooperation with Baudet, stating: “He is against climate policy, wants to close the borders, wants ministers to step down and wants the Netherlands to leave the European Union. Forum for Democracy has already excluded itself.” Jetten then suggested working with the Labor Party (PvdA) and GreenLeft, which are currently opposition parties in the House, but could make up a majority in the Senate. Both leftist parties have already suggested that they are open to negotiate a deal. Klaver would even go as far as building a political climate alliance: “I’m assuming the cabinet will adhere to the Paris climate targets. Which means that working with the right is not an option”, stated Klaver.

How much difference one election makes. Only a few months ago, the governing center-right parties VVD and CDA were willing and ready to move to the left and claim to become the ‘green right’ – thus taking the wind out of the sails of their leftist counterparts. As the electoral battle for the rightwing voter has now broken out in earnest, a climate deal seems further away than ever. Prime Minister Rutte has the impossible task to save his government’s climate agenda, while at the same time making sure his already vulnerable cabinet does not succumb under more pressure from the right and heavy criticism from Thierry Baudet especially. Doing business with Labor and the GreenLeft would seem to be political suicide for the leader of the business-friendly VVD.

The Prime Minister said he counts on Forum for Democracy to be working together with the other parties in the next couple of years: “I don’t have the luxury to exclude any party”. But being the ‘largest party in the country’, according to Baudet, “has to be translated in the House of Representatives”. He stated that, as long as there are no new elections, his party will ‘do everything it can to keep pressure on the cabinet’.

So now what for the country?

As Dutch society is changing at breakneck speed, the nation’s politics become ever more unpredictable. According to the Dutch Social and Cultural Planning Office (Sociaal Planbureau), which keeps track of societal developments and people’s wellbeing, the Netherlands has not seen a political landslide such as this one in the past one hundred years. Major social issues like climate change, immigration and the state of the healthcare system have voters concerned. They look for new political visions and new politicians that give voice to their worries. Even more, people look for a new way of doing politics. As a result, voters are no longer loyal to one traditional party, but have become more fickle than ever.

Two days before the elections, the Netherlands was in the grip of what seemed to be a terrorist attack. In the multicultural neighborhood Kanaleneiland in Utrecht, a man of Turkish descent started to shoot at people in a tram while shouting Allāhu akbar, killing four and injuring four. While the police shut down the city and the manhunt for the shooter began, all political parties decided to suspend their political campaigns except one: Thierry Baudet’s Forum for Democracy. When Baudet directly connected the attack in Utrecht to the nation’s ‘lax immigration policy’, all other parties, columnists, cartoonists, commentators and talk show guests heavily criticized him for his perceived lack of decency. The result: not Prime Minister Mark Rutte but Thierry Baudet got all the attention at the end of the political campaign and his party became the biggest in the Senate.

It was a telling example of how much politics has changed in the Netherlands. And as the Dutch go to the polls for the European elections next month, we will see how much politics will have changed in the larger scheme of things, too.