Herman Lelieveldt is a visiting fellow in the Department of SPS. He is Associate Professor in Political Science at University College Roosevelt in Utrecht. His current research focuses on the policies and politics of food consumption and production, with an emphasis on the interplay between EU and national level political systems.
Two things stand out in last week’s Dutch election results: Geert Wilder’s populist PVV did not win what Prime minister Rutte called the ‘quarterfinal in the battle against populism’, but ended up second with twenty seats and at a clear distance from the thirty-three seats of Rutte’s VVD. Secondly, the social-democrats of the PvdA were virtually decimated, losing twenty-nine seats and holding onto just nine. For the first time in history the PvdA is no longer the biggest left-wing party and has to give way to no less than three others, who each gained between fourteen and nineteen seats.
In a roundtable I organized on the day following the elections Anton Hemerijck (SPS) attributed part of the PvdA loss to a strategic error by the party in not having its leader and coalition negotiator Diederik Samson take up a position in the cabinet. As one of the architects of the coalition agreement Samson could not distance himself from these policies and ensure a social-democratic profile from within parliament. The same problem hampered Samson’s successor Lodewijk Asscher, who took over as party leader following a leadership election in the fall of 2016. Because Asscher had been a minister in the cabinet and a major architect of many of the accords that succeeded in tackling the crisis the government faced, it was also difficult for him to suddenly start criticizing coalition partner VVD during the campaign. Hemerijck’s analysis was corroborated by some fresh data Lorenzo de Sio (LUISS, Rome) presented on voter perceptions and the perceived credibility of parties to deal with issues. The data – from a project in which he collaborates with EUI’s Mathilde van Ditmars – show that on most social-economic issues the Socialist Party is perceived as more credible than the PvdA.
Hanspeter Kriesi (SPS) characterized the perceived threat of Geert Wilders as a clear exaggeration. By now it is clear that the party is not as successful as for example its Swiss counterpart. In fact the 13.0 % of the vote fell clearly short of its results in the 2010 elections where it scored 15.5 %. All-in-all, the party’s presence is a stable one, but it seems further away than ever from having a chance to ever come out first place.
So what, in the end, do these elections tell us about the populist momentum in Europe? For the Netherlands itself, it is important to not be too fixated on how only the PVV performs, but to also be aware of the fact that many other parties – the VVD and the Christian Democrats in particular – have been catering to the populist sentiment through what the BBC characterizes as “Wilders-lite” policies. Hence, even without a big presence of the PVV in parliament, Dutch politics may very well be moving in the direction of more populist policies.
Similarly, one should not underestimate populist momentum across Europe, because populist parties elsewhere are much better organized and certainly less extreme. More than ever, this campaign showed that the PVV still is a one-man show. Geert Wilders is ever more occupied by Islam, and presents increasingly radical ideas which may have alienated some of his voters. If he had invested in building a solid party organization and a strong membership base, his party might have become a solid right wing voice in the Dutch electoral landscape. At least Wilders would have found the much needed financial resources and suitable candidates he currently lacks.
It is for this reason that parties like the Front National or Alternative Fur Deutschland may be able to ride the waves of the populist momentum better than Wilders. The outcomes of upcoming battles in Europe between mainstream and populist parties are much more uncertain than they were in the Dutch case.