With most of the EU focused on the French Presidential Election in Spring 2017 and what the result there might mean for the future of the EU, the upcoming General Election in the Netherlands has received much less attention. In many ways, however, it could prove to be equally as significant. There are a number of noticeable similarities between the two. Like France, the Netherlands was one of the original six members of what would eventually become the European Union. Like France, the current leader in the polls in the Netherlands is a populist, right-wing party with an explicitly Eurosceptic and Islamophobic agenda. In France, it’s the Front National led by Marine Le Pen, in the Netherlands it’s the Partij voor de Vrijheid, or Party for Freedom, led by Geert Wilders. Additionally, both party leaders sport similar flowing blonde locks. Make of that what you will.
Mr Wilders managed to make some waves this week by describing Moroccan immigrants in the Netherlands as “scum”. The subsequent increase in media attention represents a good opportunity to examine the upcoming Dutch election in more detail and to discuss its potential outcomes.
The Party for Freedom was founded by Geert Wilders in 2002 after he left the traditional Dutch centre-right party in protest of its support for Turkish membership of the EU. It shares much of its DNA with a previous party led by a charismatic figure called Pim Fortuyn. Mr Fortuyn was difficult to characterise politically, but the primary reason for his popularity was his outspoken criticisms of Islam. He was assassinated in 2002, with his Dutch murderer citing Fortuyn’s scapegoating of Muslims as primary motivation for the attack. In 2004, prominent film-maker Theo van Gogh (the great-nephew of Vincent) was also murdered in a politically-motivated assassination – this time by a fundamentalist Dutch-Moroccan Muslim who objected to van Gogh’s public criticisms of the Islamic faith. Both of these events galvanized support for Islamophobic political parties in the Netherlands, from which Mr Wilders and his Party for Freedom have benefited greatly.
Despite the similarities, there are a number of significant differences between the situations in France and the Netherlands. Most importantly, whilst the French will be directly electing a President, the Dutch will be voting in a system called Proportional Representation. This means that the various Dutch parties are each assigned a number of seats in the ‘House of Representatives’ based on their percentage share of the vote. There are 150 seats up for grabs. In practice, this means that if a particular party were to win 10% of the overall vote, they would get 10% of the seats in the House of Representatives. Because there are a large number of different parties to choose from, it is almost impossible for any one party to win more than 50% of the vote (giving them more than 50% of the seats, and therefore a majority). As a result, Dutch governments are composed of coalitions; more than one party joining together to create a majority. The Prime Minister is the leader of the largest party within that coalition. For example, the last government was a coalition between the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (roughly equivalent to the UK Conservative Party) and the Labour Party (as you might expect, roughly equivalent to the UK Labour Party). The Prime Minister was Mark Rutte, leader of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, as they won more votes than the Labour Party.
So what does this mean in the context of the 2017 election? Well, it’s essentially bad news for Blondie…sorry, I mean Geert Wilders. His problem is that every other major party has categorically ruled out forming a governing coalition with him and his Party for Freedom. Even if his party wins the highest percentage of the vote, as current polls suggest they will, that means he won’t be able to form a government, which means he can’t become Prime Minister. Whether the other parties will actually stick to this pledge if the Party for Freedom win by a large amount is obviously open to question. It is theoretically possible that all the other parties could fail to agree on a coalition government, allowing the Party for Freedom to form what is known as a ‘minority government’ on their own, but this is pretty unlikely.
On top of this, there are some recent signs that the shine might be wearing off for Geert regardless. His close association with and support for Donald Trump seems to have cost him some points amongst the Dutch electorate. The previous Prime Minister Mark Rutte has also attempted to outflank Mr Wilders by adopting some of his rhetoric in relation to immigration (the traditional Right-wing party in France has adopted a similar tactic against Le Pen).
In regards to the EU, Mr Wilders has pledged to begin the process of ‘Nexit’ (is anyone else getting heartily sick of these blended terms for leaving the EU?!) if he is elected. On the one hand, polls suggest that support within the Netherlands for leaving the EU has declined. On the other, if Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom do win big, the momentum towards a referendum on the Netherland’s membership of the EU might prove to be unstoppable.
For now, all we can do is keep an eye on this one. If Wilders wins in the Netherlands and Le Pen is victorious in France, the consequences for the EU could be terminal.
For more info about the French Presidential election, read my previous post.