It ain’t over till it’s over: the normalization of Dutch populism?

The 2012 Dutch national election saw the far-right PVV loosing votes for the first time since its formation. Losing more than one-third of the voters from the 2010 election, the PVV is down to some ten per cent of the vote share. While the PVV is the election’s biggest loser in terms of total vote share, it remains the third biggest party in the country. However, it trails markedly behind the two big winners of the election, the right-wing liberal VVD and the social-democratic PvdA.

Should the shrinking of the PVV give rise to hopes about the demise of populism in the Netherlands? Is this the end of an decade-long era of political turmoil in the country, after the entrance of Pim Fortuyn onto the political stage and five consecutive failed governments? To understand the consequences of these elections for the PVV in particular, first the question arises what caused the PVV loss. Here some tentative answers.

Why did Wilders lose?

The poor electoral performance of the PVV and its authoritative frontman, Geert Wilders, invites for speculation about the reasons behind this collapse:

The horse race for Prime Minister

The final week of the campaign saw an unanticipated horse race developing between the sitting Prime-Minister Rutte (VVD) and ambitious Labour party candidate Diederik Samsom (PvdA), the latter running an excellent campaign gaining more than 12 per cent of the vote and thereby doubling his party’s share within a couple of weeks (election result compared to polls in mid-August). Such hype around the most-likely next leader of the country obviously damaged smaller parties and it appears that the PVV and the SP have obviously suffered from this. PVV voters might have switched in the last minute to prevent a social-democratic prime minister from being elected, hence voting VVD.

The non-threat of not governing

Going negative during the last week of the campaign, Wilders claimed that a vote for the VVD and Rutte would really be a vote for the PvdA, by increasing the chances for a government coalition including the social democrats. This strategy was bound to fail. As the vast majority of all parties had put a cordon sanitaire around the PVV during the campaign, denying any possibility of governing with Wilders, chances of government involvement for the PVV were marginal to begin with. The opportunity to cast a vote that really would make a difference, that is for Rutte, was apparently more attractive for the non-hard core PVV supporter.

Going too strong on the EU

The utterly populist and rather unrealistic PVV positions on European integration were central to Wilders’ campaign. But that tactic seems to have failed. Is seems as if people have understood better that the EU issue is maybe a bit more complex and difficult than Wilders claims in his simplifying nationalistic slogans. Maybe they even accept that leaving the EU/Euro and reintroducing the Guilder are currently not very realistic prospects. With Rutte taking some tough stances on the euro crisis during the final debates there again was an attractive alternative for PVV voters.

Overdoing it

Being a very talented debater, Wilders debate performances for some odd reason often culminated in awkward one-liners. For instance he closed a debate on rising healthcare costs rhyming that the bill should be put with the Greeks, not with the sick (‘de rekening bij de Grieken, niet bij de zieken’). In a debate on the employment market, he attacked Rutte by referring to him as having a vision of an ostrich, the backbone of a sea shell and the lies of Pinocchio. At some points in the debates it looked like the audience were not laughing with him, but were laughing at him for the silliness of his statements. Maybe he just overdid it this time.

So what does the future hold for the PVV’s role in Dutch politics? Prospects are, regrettably, not too bad. With a government consisting of (at least) the VVD and the PvdA, the PVV can profile itself as the only real right-wing opposition party. And with a high likelihood that the VVD can maintain neither a tough stance on the euro crisis nor very tough positions on immigration issues in the coalition negotiations, Wilders has room to attack. The only condition is that the PVV accepts the arrival of a period of normal politics. Two sizable volksparteien (re)emerged, with a steadfast determination to govern for a full term. Toning down somewhat in terms of rhetoric and argumentation, the PVV has a perspective to establish itself as a normal player in the Dutch party system (that would also require opening up the party for more democratic internal structures, but that’s another topic). Anything but such a move to normalization would be strategically surprising, yet not unlikely.

So could this then mean the end of populism in the Netherlands? No. First, whether the PVV takes the route of presenting itself as a far-right opposition party with broad appeal remains quite uncertain. Worries about core voters and Wilders himself might stand in the way. Second, there is still the socialist SP. Toning down on populism in the run up to the elections did not particularly help them. Populism in the Netherlands… it ain’t over till it’s over.

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