Going Dutch: Election shows a country moving away from the cliches

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL November 23, 2023
The stereotype revolves around windmills, clogs, gezellig and social permissiveness. Photo by Artem Shuba on Unsplash

Ahead of the Dutch election (November 22), the media focus was on a compelling story that was both heartening and dispiriting. Would Dilan Yeşilgöz, head of the centre-right Liberal party (VVD) leading Netherlands’ governing coalition, become the country’s first female prime minister? Would she, a half-Kurdish half-Turkish refugee, be the first Dutch immigrant prime minister? And would she, as prime minister, really work with the far-right party of Geert Wilders, thus far a political untouchable?

Don’t bet on it, but she still may do some, or all of those things. Building a coalition government in the Netherlands takes time and it’s not always the biggest party that gets to lead. Often, the coalition-building process results in big tent centrist entities such as the current one, run by departing prime minister Mark Rutte. But as I write this on election night, with the results of the vote count still to come in, the first exit poll has been published and it’s a shocker.

The Ipsos research agency poll said the far right Party for Freedom (PVV) of Geert Wilders got the most seats, by quite a stretch. The poll put Ms Yeşilgöz’s VVD in third place, after the Green-Labour alliance. In many ways, the VVD’s third-place showing shouldn’t be a surprise – it’s been in power 13 years.

But Mr Wilders’s party in pole position?

It is, of course, just an exit poll. Even if it were accurate, Ms Yeşilgöz may not necessarily be consigned to the landfill of political history and Mr Wilders may not wind up as prime minister.

That said, it’s worth reflecting on this particular moment in Holland.

The first thing to say, emphatically, is that change is in the air. This seems to be a country that is moving away from the cliche: all windmills, clogs, gezellig and social permissiveness. As The Economist put it, “the Dutch are in a rebellious mood: government scandals and the rising cost of living have damaged faith in politics.”

Indeed, there is a decided sense that settled political orthodoxies face a challenge.

For instance, the Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam served as a polling station for the very first time. The house, where a young Anne Frank hid from Nazi occupation, threw open its doors to voters to call “attention to the vital importance of freedom, equal rights and democracy”.

Another interesting change is Ms Yeşilgöz’s pre-election willingness to work with Mr Wilders, something that was rejected by her predecessor as party leader, Mr Rutte, as well as by other Dutch parties.

Ahead of the election, the Netherlands, like many Western countries, seemed to be battling to keep its focus on what matters to its people as well as on what’s right for liberal values.

It may struggle to resolve any conflicts that arise between the two positions and some observers are pessimistic.

Tarik Abou-Chadi, associate professor in European Politics at Nuffield College, Oxford, tweeted on election night that it was “a watershed moment for liberal democracies”.

The Guardian quoted VVD member Bart de Bart, 35, from The Hague: “It’s a feeling like when Trump won. We never expected it. The people who voted for him are the losers of globalism but he won’t do anything for them. If we close the borders, we will lose jobs.”

And Martijn Kooijman, another VVD member, on potentially working in a Wilders government: “We can try it. He does stand for something.”

But the point is what Mr Wilders stands for.

That does not seem to have changed very much since I first spoke to him some 20 years ago as The Times of India’s Europe correspondent. Back then, he was anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant and critical of the bland homogeneity promoted by ever-closer European union.  If the moment demands it, I’ll soon write more on Mr Wilders. Funny to think that two decades ago, he was considered an incendiary crackpot and nothing more.

(PS: Mark Rutte, of course, is out of it all, being the frontrunner to take over as NATO chief when Jens Stoltenberg steps down next year. According to reports, he’s apparently overshadowing other candidates including Estonian Premier Kaja Kallas. Mr Rutte has said he’ll leave politics after a new cabinet is formed in the Netherlands.)