Local parties win big in elections

Edition 26 April 2018, by Johannes Visser

On March 21, a little over half of the Dutch electorate took to the polls to vote for their local representation. Parties large and small, old and new, multi- or single-issue fought over those precious fifteen to forty-five council seats that are distributed in every village, town or city. The results are resoundingly clear: national politics has taken a battering and local parties are back in business.

Almost a third of all city and village council seats have gone to a local party that is not represented in the House of Representatives in The Hague. This represents a watershed moment in Dutch politics. Up until a few years ago, local politics was seen merely as an extension of what happened in The Hague and traditional governing parties used to rule the flock. No longer: one-issue parties have burst onto the scene and longtime governing local parties have consolidated their dominance in their city halls.

Having said that, the national parties have held on to most council seats in the bigger Dutch cities Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, Utrecht, Eindhoven, Tilburg, Almere, Breda and Nijmegen. But it’s outside of the megalopolis Randstad that local parties have gotten a real foothold in their politics. Belangen Buitengebied Coevorden (Outlying Coevorden Interests) was born out of protest against closing the local swimming pool four years ago, and it captured nine council seats. Samenwerking (Cooperation) Reusel-De Mierden won eight seats and a clear majority in the council, by filling its ranks with people everyone knows around town. Gemeentebelangen (Municipal Interests) Voorst took home nine seats, a new record in their 36 year governing streak. Their secret: to look to their fellow Voorstenaars instead of The Hague for policy guidance.

Locally nationalistic

As one of the main traditional governing parties locally and nationally, Labour (PvdA) has been squashed at the polls in pretty much every town it contested, though it polled slightly better overall (6%) then it did during last year’s national elections (5,7%). Democrats 66, currently in government, also lost big. Same goes for their coalition partner CDA, although it did manage to remain the largest party in terms of city council seats across The Netherlands (13,5%). The VVD of Prime Minister Mark Rutte netted a small gain across the board (reaching 13,2%), as did Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV).

The PVV participated for the first time in twenty-eights cities nationwide, but its electoral gains were smaller than anticipated. The main reason for Wilders’ lackluster election performance is that right-wing parties at the local level have been more effective in spreading their version of his nationalist message. In the port of Holland’s second largest city, the populist Leefbaar (liveable) Rotterdam remained the largest and the Freedom Party was barely able to squeak in with one council seat. In The Hague, ex-PVV Richard de Mos’ party became the largest, because his folksy populism resonated better than his old boss’ gloomy anti-Islam message. In Tilburg, late Pim Fortuyn’s former driver Hans Smolders became the largest with ten seats. And in the nation’s capital, Forum for Democracy headed by controversially nationalist Thierry Baudet was able to capture three seats out of the blue.

It is the death of consensus politics or the birth of identity politics, depending on whom you ask. Newcomer Denk, with a large Turkish constituency, has established itself in fourteen communities (17 seats) and Partij voor de Dieren (Party for the Animals) in fifteen. The party that claims to represent the interests of senior citizens, 50+ has risen to thirty seats in twenty communities. And in what is one of the biggest electoral shifts of the moment, the Greens surpassed PvdA and the Socialist Party (6,6%) as the largest on the left and the biggest winner on election night overall. Under the inspirational leadership of the youthful Jesse Klaver, the Greens scored a record 8,4 percent of the local vote and have become the largest party in Amsterdam, Utrecht and Delft as well as five other large cities.

Cynicism and hope

Experts are already battling it out as to what has been the success of the local vis-à-vis national parties. One of the explanations is that a cultural gap is widening between the large cities and the countryside. Political affinity is decided more and more by cosmopolitan versus local views of the world. Such issues of gender neutrality, Dutch slavery history and Black Pete continue to divide small towns and big cities. In addition, the success of the local parties is considered mostly due to a broad cynical voter view of politics, especially amongst the lesser educated, the elderly and the not-so-well-to-do. They often feel ignored, and feel that national politicians are not in tune with what is happening outside the Randstad. Local parties are benefiting from this attitude: ‘localos’ consistently beat not only the traditional governing parties, but also those parties that had previously received the ‘protest vote’ during national elections, such as 50Plus and PVV. The price to pay for the fragmentation of the political landscape, resulting from this metastasis of local parties, is that the many newcomers will make it harder to govern. Two examples in point are Rotterdam and The Hague, with respectively thirteen and fifteen parties occupying fortyfive council seats each. And yet, the famous Dutch system of consensus seeking ‘polder politics’ may yet again prevail. The Netherlands has a long tradition of local aldermen from the full political spectrum coming together to get things done. In contrast to the bickering and posturing during the election campaigns, governing is a pretty sober and pragmatic affair, and cooperation is usually found even between ideological opposites. With the latest political power shift away from national parties, it is now up to the localos to give it a go.

Referendum: ‘no dragnet’

Aside from the local elections, Dutch voters could also give their yea or nay to the so-called ‘dragnet’ intelligence act in a referendum held at the same time. This new Law on Intelligence and Security Services (Wiv), having cleared both chambers of parliament, gives intelligence agencies new tools and authorizations to intercept cable communication in an undirected and sweeping manner. Previously, the Dutch intelligence services AIVD and MIVD were only allowed to listen in on targeted individuals. Without possibilities to pick up suspicious behavior through sweeping through mass communication, many threats had gone undetected. When the new law was about to pass, opponents sprang into action and petitioned for a referendum, which according to the law of the land has to be held when three hundred thousand citizens sign up. Amnesty International, the Dutch Association for Journalism, Free Press Unlimited along with a range of political parties also voiced their opposition to the new law. The highest public advising institutions, such as the Council of State (Raad van State), the Scientific Council for Government Policy (Wetenschappelijke Raad voor het Regeringsbeleid) as well as large internet parties like KPN, Google and Microsoft also voiced grave concerns about (parts of) the law, but did not support the issue being put up for a referendum.

And so during the elections, a slim majority of the Dutch public said no to the law. As usual, the yes campaign was in the lead up to the moment of voting, but then lost to the no camp. The government is now under pressure to ‘reconsider the law’, but it is not obligated to revoke or even revise it. To keep the public happy, government and parliament will most likely come up with a new legislative proposal in which better privacy protections are provided. But as these things go with (non-binding) referenda, the new intelligence act will probably go into effect relatively unchanged, except for a few cosmetic changes for political cover.