The Netherlands holds parliamentary elections on Wednesday next week. Polls have long predicted that the anti-Muslim, anti-EU Geert Wilders’ populist Party for Freedom (PVV) could emerge as the country’s largest party, although Wilders is thought unlikely to enter government.
After Britain’s EU referendum and US President Donald Trump’s win at the polls, a PVV victory could be seen as fitting a developing narrative of nativist, anti-establishment movements on the rise.
The probable strong showing by the far-right French National Front leader Marine Le Pen in May’s French presidential poll reinforces this view. Some observers believe the EU’s future is in play.
Illustration: Mountain People
What is the political landscape and how does the system work?
There are 150 MPs in the Dutch parliament, meaning a government needs 76 seats to form a majority. No single party ever manages this and the Netherlands has been governed by coalitions for more than 100 years.
Parliament is elected by proportional representation in a single, nationwide constituency — which means that any party that wins 0.67 percent of the national vote is assured of a seat.
Dutch politics have been marked in recent decades by a sharp decline in support for the three main parties of government from the center-right and left. Their share of the vote has shrunk from more than 80 percent in the 1980s to a projected 40 percent this year.
This is a trend visible across Europe. In the Netherlands, it has been paralleled by a proliferation of smaller special interest parties: No fewer than 28 of them, many new, are contesting this election. As many as 14 are forecast to win seats, including eight with 10 or more MPs.
It is this fragmentation of the vote, rather than a big increase in support, that could see the PVV become the largest party. The movements that produced Brexit and Trump won more than half the vote; Wilders’ is forecast to get below 20 percent.
Who is Wilders and
what does he want?
Wilders was elected as an MP representing the liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) 19 years ago, then became an independent before founding the PVV in 2006 — a party defined mostly by its virulent opposition to Muslims and what it describes as the “Islamization” of the Netherlands.
Wilders was found guilty of inciting discrimination against Dutch Moroccans in December last year and at his campaign launch denounced “Moroccan scum who make the streets unsafe.”
He lives under 24-hour police protection.
The PVV is not a normal party; Wilders is its only member. Its one-page election manifesto promises mainly anti-Muslim measures such as closing mosques and Muslim schools, banning sales of the Koran and barring Muslim migrants.
It also pledges to withdraw the Netherlands from the EU, close Dutch borders and spend more on security and defense and less on wind power and foreign aid. Several proposals breach international law and the Dutch constitution.
Which other parties
The VVD of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, on target for between 23 and 27 seats, and its coalition partner, the center-left Labor Party (PvdA), are on course to lose 30 percent and 70 percent of their MPs respectively.
Medium-sized parties likely to win between 10 and 20 seats are the Christian Democratic Party (CDA) and liberal-progressive Democrats 66 (D66), both parties of government since the 1960s, plus the more radical Socialist Party (SP) and fast-growing Green-Left Party (GL), which is likely to quadruple its MPs.
Smaller parties forecast to win fewer than 10 seats include two religious parties; the Party for Animals (PvdD); the 50PLUS Party for pensioners; the anti-EU Forum for Democracy (FvD) and Denk (Think), which courts mainly Muslim immigrants.
In addition, there is a party called Niet Stemmers (Non-Voters) for the 25 percent of Dutch voters who are expected to abstain. It promises that its MPs — should it get any — would not vote in parliament either.
What are the issues?
Unemployment is at a five-year low and economic growth is at 2.3 percent — the fundamentals of the Dutch economy are recovering well.
Refugees remain a concern, but less so than during the peak of Europe’s crisis in 2015. About 31,000 asylum seekers registered in the Netherlands last year, far fewer than the more than 90,000 the government predicted.
Immigration and integration are big issues. Wilders talks of “Henk and Ingrid,” an imaginary Dutch couple suffering at the hands of a corrupt political elite, a despotic EU and — of course — entitled Muslim immigrants.
His influence — that Rutte has also demanded that migrant communities conform to Dutch norms — and Europe’s political climate mean the dominant themes inevitably include multiculturalism, globalization, sovereignty, Dutch values and how far the EU works — or does not work — for the Netherlands.
Who will win the most seats?
The overwhelming majority of polls since summer 2015 have shown the PVV narrowly ahead of the VVD.
However, Wilders’ support seems to be fading: The Peilingwijzer suggests the PVV has shed three to four seats in the past month, giving it between 16 percent and 17 percent of the vote — at best neck-and-neck and sometimes behind Rutte’s party.
That would be consistent with past elections, when the PVV was ahead until the final weeks. However, polls also indicate more than half of voters could yet change their minds.
What happens if Wilders does win the most seats?
The PVV might not get the chance to try to form a government even if it does become the largest party. Under the Dutch system, the new parliament appoints an “informateur,” usually a senior politician, to explore likely coalitions.
Since the VVD and all main parties to its left have pledged not to work with Wilders, it is hard to see how the PVV — even with 30-plus seats — would be capable of convincing 46 more MPs to join it in government.
Wilders has said his exclusion would spark a revolution, but it would not be the first time the Netherlands’ largest party has been shut out: It has happened three times to the PvdA, including once when it won more than one third of the vote.
So it is unlikely Wilders would end up in government. He might not even try: In 2010, the PVV propped up a minority Rutte government, but quit abruptly two years later. Many expect Wilders to prefer to remain an outsider rather than compromise.
So what might the
government look like?
The SP has pledged not to work with the VVD, which complicates matters. However, probable permutations revolve around the mainstream VVD, PvdA, CDA and D66 parties, with the addition of one or more smaller parties. The fast-advancing GL could prove a key player.
Polls suggest at least five parties will be needed to form a government without the PVV.
Although this time the differences between several possible coalition partners are not major, the coalition-forming process could take some time: The average in the Netherlands is three months.
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