Why are Dutch political heavyweights fleeing the electoral furnace?

There have been mounting warnings that Dutch political stability is fast becoming a thing of the past. Recent holders of government positions have lost the ability to balance individual and local freedoms and rights with the need for the state to manage the challenges faced by a densely-populated small country of 18 million people in what is an age of growing confusion and discord.

In my new book, I have argued that the longstanding Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte has appeared increasingly opportunistic and insipid in his reactions to the growing fractures in Dutch society brought about not least by the pressures of globalisation. On 7 July, the fourth coalition which he has presided over since 2012 fell apart over disagreements about the number of asylum seekers to accept into the country.

Rutte has been unable to reassure citizens from the small towns and provinces, as well as the indigenous working-class, that he is a watchful steward of their interests. Parties keen to alter lifestyles and economic occupations by ushering in a globally-focused order based on Green social engineering, have made the running during his thirteen years of rule. Paradoxically, Rutte belongs to the centre-right. But it is the priorities and world view of the metropolitan left, driven not least by D66, hitherto the main voice of middle-class Dutch radical liberals, which have shaped key public policies.

Bureaucrats and NGOs have been able to impose a ‘progressive’ design for living on the Netherlands while largely disregarding the big swathe of citizens who feel they are being subject to unwelcome top-down experiments. Dutch farmers, hitherto a quiescent element in society, have mounted vigorous resistance to state plans to expropriate farms in order to fulfil Net Zero targets. A party founded only in 2019, the Boer Burger Beweging (BBB, coloquially known as the Farmers Party) is now the leading political force, having won the elections for the upper house of parliament in March. Its leader Caroline van der Plas has the common touch which seems to have deserted most recent high-profile Dutch political figures.

She has cleverly tapped into growing disgruntlement arising from the deterioration of the urban environment, demographic pressures on public services, economic insecurity, and collisions over competing rights and ideological agendas. It means that the BBB is not just the voice of overlooked farmers. It is poised to do well in cities and towns also. Plenty of urban electors exist who are weary of arrogant and out-of-touch parties and an administrative elite who seem more interested in carrying out experiments on the Dutch population than in paying close attention to their immediate needs and longer-term interests.

The highly proportional Dutch system gives voice to opinions and interests denied representation in Britain where the single plurality system (First past the post) invests power in a few increasingly disfunctional electoral blocs. New parties have risen, and some long-established ones have declined or foundered, because of deepening splits in Dutch society about what is the national model to embrace in increasingly tempestuous times.

Energy disputes, climate politics, and strains caused by the wave of asylum seekers, confounded Rutte’s abilities as an able diplomat and communicator. Previously, he had sailed through crises over austerity policy, the unfair penalisation of social security claimants, the debacle over the Dutch withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, his storing of classified state information on his Nokia phone, and an erratic and often harsh application of lockdown measures in 2021-22 which roiled Dutch society.

Opposition to state measures to contain the pandemic gave rise to the fiercest protests seen anywhere in northern Europe during this medical emergency. The tumult seemed to bring to the surface long-simmering tensions about what should be the Dutch design for living – to be at the cutting edge of developments to find ‘expert-driven’ solutions for major global challenges or to take stock and slow down after decades of non-stop change in Dutch society which had left many feeling disempowered or burnt-out.

Rutte no longer seemed to be the indispensable butler in the unruly house of Dutch politics able to manage an increasingly querulous household. Initially, however, it was assumed that he would use the months before a general election, called for 22 November, to strengthen the middle ground and characterise his detractors as impractical figures with no real answers for pressing national problems. Towards that end, he would be able to rely on the Binnenhof, the national institutions concentrated in The Hague, as well as a largely supportive media. A critical mass of Dutch voters would sober up and, as before, recognise that only he could steer the country between its global responsibilities and local self-absorption.

But he caused astonishment four days after his government’s resignation when he announced that he was stepping down from national politics and would not be standing in the election. He was only 56 and days later, the deputy prime minister, Sigrid Kaag announced that she too was bowing out. As leader of D66, the 61-year-old who had given up a long United Nations career, just six years earlier presumably to spend a long time in politics. But now she claimed that family members had compelled her to quit. The strain of spearheading the forcible closure of Dutch farms to comply with targets for nitrogen reduction set by the EU, had placed her in the eye of the storm.

In the same week, not dissimilar reasons were offered by the 47-year-old foreign minister Wopke Hoekstra, for retreating from the fray. His party, the Christian Democrats, the predominant force in politics until the turn-of-the-century, now faces an even bigger wipe-out than the Dutch Labour Pary which, by 2017, had been reduced to impotence for backing fashionable Green norms. The proportional system enabled voters to substitute parties which seemed insincere and transactional with brand-new alternatives like the BBB.

This period of sharp de-alignment has also been accompanied by bouts of ugly political violence. The first outsider to break the mould, conservative nationalist Pim Fortuyn was slain by an environmental activist in 2002 on the day before his party’s electoral breakthrough. In 2004, Theo Van Gogh, a well-known film-maker, was brutally killed in broad daylight in Amsterdam by a citizen of Moroccan background who deplored his views. Gert Wilders, until now the most successful nativist politician has been under 24-hour police protection, for holding similar anti-immigrant positions. In 2014, the D66 politician responsible for introducing legislation permitting euthanasia was murdered by someone who claimed to be carrying out ‘an order from God’.

It would be understandable if government forces decided to go before voters with the urgent warning that the Netherlands is at the crossroads: it can either hurtle down the path of mob rule and might-is-right politics, or else it can step back and allow elected politicians the room to govern even though some of their decisions may impact disfavourably on totemic elements of Dutch national life such as the 6,000 farmers due to have their properties expropriated by the state.

An appeal for the established pillars of Dutch society to be allowed to reassert their authority or else there will be little to stop anarchy disfiguring Dutch society and turning it into an unstable basket-case, is likely to influence middle-ground voters.

But the trouble is that the middle-ground has substantially shrunk. Previously moderate and even apolitical voters, not least farmers, have been radicalised. They have used their solidarity and social media tools to shake the ruling elite. In Caroline van der Plas, they have found an unconventional but redoubtable champion.

Perhaps Rutte concluded that he could no longer read the room, nor could anyone else in the limelight representing liberal capitalist status quo interests. A fierce struggle for power will likely play out in the Netherlands for the rest of the year.

It remains to be seen who are the most adept at the game – discredited globalists backed by the legacy media and still in charge of the state machine, or else conservative realists determined to ensure that ordinary Dutch citizens are listened to rather than subject to demeaning and dangerous experiments.

Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Bradford. His book Europe’s Leadership Famine: portraits of defiance and decay 1950-2022 was published on 17 June.

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