Analysis Cas Mudde on the elections in the Netherlands

Will “Teflon Mark” Rutte’s “good populism” bring the Dutch back to Europe?

Despite having resigned for the third time in ten years, the flexible outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte is almost certain to lead the next cabinet. His new senior – and europhile – ally might well drag him back from his current posture as the EU’s “Mr No” to his former role as “Mr Nice Guy”, believes Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde.

Published on 21 March 2021 at 18:27

Is there any other country where the government can fall over a scandal and then that scandal plays no role in the campaign and, therefore, win the election two months later? It happened in the Netherlands, where the third government led by Conservative Mark Rutte fell over the so-called “benefits scandal” – a misnomer, as the scandal was not in the benefits but in the racists and unaccountable way in which the tax office dealt with child benefits recipients.

To be fair, the campaign, if one can even call it that, was about nothing really, except, perhaps, the vague issue of “leadership”, i.e. personalities over policies. And the plurality of the “critical” Dutch electorate decided that the man who had two of his three governments fall and has bungled the state response to Covid-19, including the roll-out of vaccines, is the best the country has to offer.

In many ways, last week’s election was a non-event: no campaign, no clear choices, and little change. Whereas last time the social democratic PvdA was decimated, suffering the largest loss of any Dutch party in the postwar period (29 seats), the biggest loss was just 6 seats this time.  Groenlinks (Green Left) paid the price for a lackluster campaign and leader, as well as the explicit refusal to act as an opposition party in the past four years, while the far-right Forum for Democracy (FvD) returned from the dead to win 6 seats in a Trumpian anti-lockdown campaign – FvD was the only party to campaign like normal, despite strict (but weakly enforced) covid restrictions. 

In fact, despite Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s claim that his “good populism” had defeated the “bad populism” of the far right in 2017, the latter scored its best result in postwar elections. In total, the far right gained 28 seats, more than the combined classic Left (25 seats). However, in line with the extreme fragmentation of the Dutch party system – a record 17 parties will be represented in the new parliament – the far-right vote is divided over three different parties. Geert Wilders’ mainly Islamophobic Party for Freedom (PVV) lost slightly (from 20 to 17 seats), and dropped from second to third place, while Thierry Baudet’s completely radicalised FvD won big (from 2 to 8 seats). 

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Newcomer JA21 (Right Answer 21, but more colloquially YES21) enters parliament with 3 seats. Like Baudet, its leader, far right veteran Joost Eerdmans, profited from excessive media attention. JA21 mainly consists of former representatives of FvD, who left Baudet’s party after the latest antisemitism scandal of December 2020, which explains why it is the biggest far right party in the Senate (with 8 seats), despite not having run in the 2019 elections.

Its size in the Senate, which has weak powers but can still delay or embarrass the government, explains in part why mainstream right-wing parties and politicians were quick to congratulate the party and journalists started to speculate about coalition participation minutes after the first exit poll had been published. This is highly unlikely, however, as though the new government will undoubtedly be led again by Rutte, who has been mainstreaming and normalising radical right parties and policies for over a decade now. The social liberal D66 will be its key coalition partner, and that party has long campaigned as the antithesis of the far right. 

Move fast

Despite the fact that the previous government fell, its key parties are keen to continue and are using the pandemic as a reason to move fast. While the Christian Democrats (CDA) are among the biggest losers of the elections, and are facing leadership questions, there is little doubt they will join Rutte’s VVD and D66 in the next government. The only question is whether they will add another party and, if so, which party it will be – the Protestant CU, which was part of the previous government, or perhaps PvdA or GroenLinks, to strengthen D66 within the government and protect it from too big electoral losses in the next election.

Because, while FvD won the most additional seats, D66 was the real political winner of the election. Under its new party leader Sigrid Kaag, only elected in September 2020, the party not only prevented its traditional government punishment – D66 has always paid a big electoral price for government participation – but it went from 8 percent in the polls to 15 percent last week. This has made D66 the second largest party in parliament and Kaag the second-most powerful politician in the country. In fact, it will probably make Kaag the most powerful female politician in Dutch history.

While Rutte is not without ideology, a popular misunderstanding in both the national and international media, he is extremely flexible on a lot of key positions and the EU should not be an exception

Together with the astonishment over “Teflon Mark”, who seems untouchable despite a long series of broken campaign promises and political scandals, the “Sigrid-Kaag-Effect” was the main story in the European media. Progressive media like Le Monde expressed hope that Kaag and her now more powerful pro-European party could balance Rutte’s Euroscepticism and make the Netherlands into a more constructive EU member state again. This hope was further strengthened by the success of another newcomer, the pan-European pro-EU party Volt, which entered parliament with three seats. There is reason for cautious optimism, although one should not forget how deep-seated, if instrumental, Euroscepticism is in the Netherlands.

First, and foremost, it is a Dutch political tradition that the biggest coalition party gets the Prime Minister and the second biggest party the powerful Minister of Finance. Given how much damage previous Ministers of Finance have done to the country’s image in Europe, notably Jeroen Dijsselbloem (PvdA) during the Great Recession and more recently Wopke Hoekstra (CDA), having an openly pro-European Minister of Finance who will not insult other member states with bigoted “jokes” will in and by itself already be a big improvement.

Multi-lateral cooperations

Second, while Rutte is not without ideology, a popular misunderstanding in both the national and international media, he is extremely flexible on a lot of key positions and the EU should not be an exception. He sees himself as a manager who, in classic Dutch fashion, primarily protects the financial health of the nation – which, and here comes the ideology, he believes to be directly tied to the fate of multi-lateral cooperations, particularly those with a Dutch connection, like his former employer Unilever. It should not be too difficult for Kaag to convince him that the current EU is very much compatible with this view. But the big question is whether Rutte can convince his own party, which has steered far to the right under his leadership, reflecting much more, in British terms, the Conservative Party than the Liberal Democrats.

For years now, the Netherlands has been punching well above its weight in EU politics. Soon Rutte will be the longest-serving political leader within the EU – at least, the longest-serving Prime Minister that has been elected in free and fair elections – which will further strengthen the country’s position in Brussels. At the same time, the Netherlands has lost a lot of goodwill as a consequence of insulting, obstructionist, and short-sighted behaviour and policies.

After more than ten year’s a Prime Minister, Rutte might be starting to think about his political legacy, not just in the Netherlands but also in Europe. D66 and Kaag could be the ideal partners to help restore the Netherlands’ traditional positive image and help Rutte shed his current image of “Mr. No” and rebuild his initial image of “Mr. Nice Guy”.


Sarah de Lange on the Dutch election

A host of the RADIKAAL podcast, dedicated to radical politics, sports and music, Cas Mudde has launched a new series: Special Election Series. His first guest is Sarah de Lange, who holds the Dr. J.M. Den Uyl Chair at the Department of Political Science of the University of Amsterdam. She has published widely on far right and populist politics in Western Europe and is also involved in research on social democratic parties. Sarah tweets at @sldelange, and talks with Cas Mudde about the recent Dutch election.

Listen to the podcast:

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