Leaving the EU with Geert Wilders? An insider analysis of the Dutch elections
Poverty, climate and migration were the central issues of the parliamentary elections on November 22. Wilders in particular exploited this problematic situation, winning a surprising victory with his one-man party PVV. Is the country now ungovernable, will it close its borders, or what will happen next?
As is so often the case, it was to be another neck-and-neck race: Above all, the economically liberal VVD (English: People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy), for years the largest force under the (demissionary) Prime Minister Mark Rutte, was battling for first place in the polls with the PVV (Party for Freedom) under Geert Wilders, Rutte’s former rival in the VVD.
A green-left alliance of the two parties GroenLinks and PvdA (GreenLeft and Party for Labor), which has formed a list under the experienced EU politician Frans Timmermans, should follow close behind. The new party NSC (New Social Contract) under the “whistleblower” Peter Omtzigt – until recently a member of CDA (Christian Democratic Appeal) – was also predicted to achieve a double-digit result.
Surprising results – and disillusionment
But decisions are made at the ballot box, not in the polls. And the result was quite something: Wilders’ PVV received 23.5% of the vote and more than doubled the number of seats in parliament. This was followed by the green-left alliance with 15.8 percent. The previously largest party, VVD, lost 6.6 percent and only received 15.2 percent. The new NSC became the fourth largest party from a standing start with 12.9%.
According to Dutch electoral law, the number of seats in the parliaments – 150 in the more important “Tweede Kamer” (Second Chamber) and 75 in the “Eerste Kamer” (First Chamber or Senate) – is always constant. This means that a government majority requires at least 76 MPs in the Second Chamber.
Before we go into the details, a sobering picture emerges: whoever wants to govern with whom, the situation is muddled. In the elections, no fewer than 15 parties made it into parliament. But that is not the end of the complexity. It was only in the summer that the Senate, which has to approve proposed legislation, was reappointed. There are presently even 16 parties represented in it!
Asylum crisis and early elections
New elections were held in the Netherlands in March 2021. The formation of a government then dragged on until January 2022, longer than ever. Even then, the government had resigned and was only in office in demissionary capacity – due to a racism scandal that had come to light, which Peter Omtzigt had helped uncover. The right-wing conservative party establishment resented this, but many voters now thanked him with their votes.
However, the coalition, which was formed with great difficulty at the beginning of 2022, was only granted a short term in government. The cabinet consisting of the VVD, the bourgeois-liberal D66 (Democrats 66) and the Christian parties CDA and CU broke up on July 7 in a dispute over the right asylum policy. The Christian parties did not want to agree to any further restrictions, particularly with regard to family reunification of refugees.
The ChristenUnie (Christian Union) in particular sees itself as a family party. Its leader defined a red line here, which Mark Rutte then crossed. So the only option was to resign.
Flight and immigration
But how big is the immigration problem really? According to official statistics, 2015 – due to the war in Syria – marked the highest number of refugees to date. In 2022, 46,460 asylum seekers and relatives arrived in the Netherlands. Even in a small country with 17 to 18 million inhabitants, these are not dramatic figures to begin with.
However, the issue repeatedly made negative headlines. The arrival center in Ter Apel, in a remote corner of the province of Groningen and right on the German border near Leer and Oldenburg, was overcrowded. As a result, hundreds of people had to sleep outside. The Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders intervened. In August 2022, a three-month-old baby even died under unexplained circumstances.
In addition, there was petty crime such as shoplifting or threatening passengers on buses and trains. According to media reports, these were mainly committed by asylum seekers from North Africa, who would have little chance of obtaining a residence permit. It was only on November 20, two days before the elections, that angry store owners published an incendiary letter with the appeal: “Our village is broken!”
However, not only asylum seekers were portrayed negatively in the election campaign, but also international students and highly qualified immigrants. Even Peter Omtzigt said that these groups were driving up housing prices, making it harder for locals to find a rental or owner-occupied apartment.
But there is reason to doubt this portrayal: the fact that asylum seekers’ applications are not processed quickly is of course also a bureaucratic problem and an expression of political priorities. Why it is not possible to find accommodation for those with a right of residence and send the rest away again also has a domestic political component.
It was certainly not the immigrants who neglected investment in social housing for a long time, which contributed to the rise in housing costs. On the contrary, energetic workers from the east of the EU, for example, are making an important contribution to the construction sector.
How the Rutte government reacted to the housing crisis says a lot about its understanding of social policy: For example, cash gifts of up to 100,000 euros were made tax-free for house purchases – much more common in the Netherlands than in other countries. Until the end of this year, this will mainly benefit the children of wealthy Dutch people. The rest of the population is left out in the cold.
What’s more, the – now reversed – restriction on education support grants has driven many from less affluent families into financial problems. Anyone starting their career with 10,000 or 20,000 euros in debt is now groaning, and not just because of the rise in interest rates. Such debts also have a negative impact when financing a house.
In other words: The Netherlands is still a great place to live – if you can afford it. Blaming asylum seekers and immigrants for this sounds like a scapegoat strategy.
Nevertheless, the influx of foreign students and workers is now to be restricted. According to EU law, however, at least citizens of the European Union should not be treated differently from those with Dutch citizenship.
That is why there is now talk of restricting English-language courses. Anyone wishing to study in the Netherlands would then have to learn the national language more often in future. (Personally: I criticize the fact that more and more courses are being offered in English and I publish in three languages myself. I am also in favor of learning the local language and tradition. But you shouldn’t think you can solve structural social problems with such measures).
In recent years, tax benefits for highly qualified immigrants have also been increasingly restricted. I used to benefit from this temporary concession myself. The main beneficiary, however, was my Dutch landlord, who was happy about the foreigner paying him a higher monthly rent.
However, the election results on November 22 show that such bogus solutions can win votes.
Geert Wilders’ strategy
Wilders, who for many years has primarily declared Islam and immigration to be the major problem, expressed himself in a moderate manner this time. Voters were perhaps able to overlook the radical demands of the party program “Dutch people back to number 1”. Many of these may not be compatible with EU law and probably not even with the Dutch constitution.
One special feature is that the PVV has only one member: Geert Wilders himself. This makes it easier to resolve internal disputes and means that the party – legally the “Groep Wilders” (Wilders Group) – does not have to disclose its finances.
According to the program, asylum and immigration are the root of all evil. Politicians would have taken the welfare of immigrants more seriously than that of their own population. (Fact check: remember the conditions in Ter Apel.) “Asylum seekers enjoy free, delicious buffets on luxury cruise ships, while Dutch families have to save on groceries,” it says on page 6, for example.
According to Wilders, there should be no more Muslim schools, Korans or mosques. (Fact check: Article 1 of the Dutch constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion or origin.) EU citizens should be required to obtain work permits. The EU should not interfere in national affairs and the people should have a binding vote on whether to leave the Union (“Nexit”). Borders should be closed and monitored by the army.
The PVV also has a bad word to say about climate policy: For example, environmental protection rules restricting housing construction or heating requirements are to be taken off the table. And the Dutch First Chamber, the Senate, is to be abolished. (This would restrict parliamentary scrutiny of legislation).
Of course, the majority who voted for Wilders and his party do not automatically support all of these points. On the one hand, the election result is likely to reflect dissatisfaction with the policies of recent years. On the other hand, there may simply have been a lack of good alternatives. Mark Rutte’s decision to step down as party leader leaves a power vacuum in the VVD.
In any case, his successor, 46-year-old Dilan Yeşilgöz, looks like an exotic figure in the conservative camp: she came to the Netherlands with her mother and sister in 1984 after her father was accepted as a political refugee from Turkey (remember the debate on family reunification). She originally joined the socialist SP until she was encouraged to join the VVD when she was an administrative officer in a small town.
She has been Minister of Justice for less than two years. From August, she was suddenly supposed to lead the largest party to date into the elections, which already took place in November. However, many Dutch people have problems pronouncing or spelling her name correctly. As a relatively young woman with little experience in government functions and Kurdish-Turkish roots, she is likely to have had a difficult time as a potential prime minister. This could partly explain the unexpected, sharp drop in seats by almost a third.
The left-wing progressive camp has also reached its lowest point in 20 years with this result. The D66, which was more than halved in terms of MPs, is likely to have suffered from the fact that it was barely able to push through its agenda as the junior partner in Rutte’s fourth cabinet. And Timmermans, who stood for the green-left-social alliance, came across as elitist to many.
However, Wilders’ surprising success does not automatically mean that the Islam and EU opponent will lead the next government. He has always been a red rag for the second largest parliamentary group (GL/PvdA) anyway. However, after the elections, the third largest party in parliament, the VVD under Yeşilgöz, also ruled out participating in the government. However, this decision is not uncontroversial within the party: The conservative wing could use the PVV to push through its tough stance on migration issues.
Contrary to what some media reported (and did not want to correct when I pointed this out), Peter Omtzigt has not ruled out a coalition with Wilders, but merely noted concerns about the rule of law. The farmers’ party BBB (FarmerCitizenMovement) would be available for a right-wing conservative government. However, farmers in particular are often dependent on the cheap labor of immigrants, for example for harvesting.
Speaking of the BBB: in the elections for the Senate a few months ago, it achieved a surprising victory with 20.7% and is the largest parliamentary group there with 16 out of 75 seats. In the elections on November 22, it did not even achieve 5 percent. Back then, voter’s preferences were apparently primarily “anti-climate legislation”, now suddenly “anti-migration”. That all seems rather panicky and emotional.
But no one can get around this fact: with 15 parties in the Tweede Kamer and even 16 in the Eerste Kamer, the Netherlands looks hard to govern. Even PVV, VVD, NSC and BBB together would not have a majority in the Senate. The system is blocking itself. Will this again be blamed on immigrants, most of whom are not even allowed to vote?
A chance for democracy?
There is no shortage of crises and wars. Even if it sounds counter-intuitive, the muddled status quo may even be an opportunity: without a government and the pressure it exerts on parliamentary groups, MPs could look for changing majorities for every issue. After all, it is not the ministers who pass the laws, but the parliamentarians.
Common sense may soon prevail over frustration again: the Netherlands accounts for 0.2 percent of the world’s population. It is doubtful that panicked isolationism will solve problems in the long term in a world that has moved closer together:
The small country in the northwest of the EU, with its land below sea level, is also particularly threatened by climate change. And here, too, society is ageing and the shortage of jobs is increasing. For good reason, universities and companies have repeatedly emphasized in recent months that the country needs international cooperation and immigration.