March 14, 2017
The Dutch parliamentary elections on 15th March are perceived as a major milestone of the European election year. There are 150 seats being voted on and as a first in recent history, the Dutch have more parties to choose from than ever before (28 parties). Minister-President Mark Rutte’s liberal-centre right Party for Freedom and Democracy (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie – VVD) is almost tied with Geert Wilders’ populist Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid – PVV) in the latest polls – despite a recent fall in the polls for the PVV (currently between 20 and 24 seats).
To hear the voice of the 89ers on the current political atmosphere, their political engagement and populism, we talked to Denise (21 years), who is considering voting for the liberal-right VVD (but is not a member), Danique (22), a member of GroenLinks since last year and actively campaigning, and Maarten (31), a member of the Dutch Labour Party, PvdA.
All three are students at the University of Amsterdam. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. Interview conducted and edited by Verena Reihs, Press Officer.
Verena Reihs: Is it easy for young people to get into a party and contribute actively?
Danique: It was for me. In my hometown, GroneLinks is a small party – just 100 members. I went to the first meeting and there were few young people so they immediately asked me whether I want to help. I was also asked to join the committee which writes the programme for the city council. In general, young(er) people might be placed higher on the list.
Maarten: I think here in Amsterdam the competition is really fierce. But it depends on the party you choose. Some parties are more popular with young people – like GroenLinks.
Denise: Youth departments of the parties make a difference, too. For example the VVD has their Youth Organisation Freedom and Democracy (JOVD).They are very active. It is easier if you start quite early in the VVD. You grow from there to become a politician. That’s quite the route you have to take to get into parliament.
Maarten: Well, I don’t think you have to take the route but it is very common.
In the Dutch multi-party system it is hard to choose – still 70% of the voters were undecided a week before the elections. What do you look for in a party/politician to consider voting for them? What are the characteristics you look for when joining a party?
Maarten: For me it was ideology and the stances they have on certain topics. I really feel like I’m a Social Democrat – there are two options for me in the Netherlands. The PvdA has more experience in government which I think is important. The other party – GroenLinks – I considered very elitist.
Danique: I also turned over Labour and Green in my head. In the end I just felt more enthusiastic about GroenLinks
Maarten: How did you end up with VVD, Denise?
Denise: Because of my boyfriend he used to be politically active for the VVD. I started reading the party programme and getting to know the party more. It kind of fit with what I thought society should look like and for the upcoming election I did a lot of stemwijzers, voting websites on which you rate your opinion on important issues. The VVD always ended up in my top 3. I think I’m quite a good match – but not on all points because I’m more progressive than the VVD is.
Maarten: I’m extremely liberal on issues such as euthanasia for everyone or adoption rights for gay people. PvdA is more conservative on these issues than D66 and GroenLinks. What I also think is super important is the role of women.
Danique: This is also a reason why I got involved with the GroenLinks.
Denise: The image of the women is a reason I would never want to vote for the SGP – the Christian party. They don’t allow women in parliament. Even though I’m religious and my standpoints are matching quite well, and I really like their party leader.
Maarten: It’s unbelievable that a party like this is still in parliament. I definitely respect them as politicians but some of their stances are really backward.
“With Wilders, many people say I go and vote because I don’t want him to win – they feel obligated to go.”
When looking at European newspapers, the Dutch elections are seen as a milestone election in 2017, mainly reporting on Wilders’ impact. How is that feeling perceived in the Netherlands? Are people looking forward cast their vote?
Denise: Yes, I think so. I think everyone is aware of what is going on, even more than the previous years. I feel like everyone is trying to get their vote be heard because there is so much at stake. With Wilders, many people say I go and vote because I don’t want him to win – they feel obligated to go.
Danique: Yes, agreed. This is also why I’m more motivated to go campaigning for example. I really don’t want him to win
Maarten: Right now the Dutch newspapers write about the fact that foreign press is interested in the Dutch case – you know the sensation about the sensation. I think it is a little bit crazy and a little bit too much. Wilders has been around for over 10 years now and of course his movement is growing and he’s been the biggest winner in the polls for a long time. But it is not really that shocking. You might argue that there is a populist wave going through Europe but that doesn’t mean that these movements are all connected to each other – even though there has been this get-together in Germany. They are extremely different. So I think, internationally this is a little bit over-hyped.
Denise: Yes, I think also the Dutch mind set matters. We are very down to earth. It’s just “Act normal and behave normal, then everything is going to be fine”. To me that’s the big difference between the Netherlands and other countries.
Do you think other countries can learn from the Netherlands in that sense – for example in dealing and governing with Populists like Wilders?
Maarten: The Netherlands needed a lot of time to learn how to handle Wilders. He appeared on the political scene when Pim Fortuyn left it – the predecessor of PVV who was assassinated in 2002. Fortuyn shook up the political landscape in the Netherlands, but if you listened to him now he would sound very moderate. At that time people thought he was a xenophobe and a fascist, called him extreme right. He was placed into some corner by the political and media elite – and that was really really stupid. I think populism is a political factor which we just have to learn to live and deal with. In the past newspapers were hostile towards Wilders and the political parties were scared. It has since normalized a little bit.
Danique: Still, I don’t know if it is a good thing that everybody is excluding him from the coalition government for example
Maarten: I agree.
Denise: The problem is that he has only this one issue and his whole party is build on it – the single point of the islamisation. It’s just not possible to work with him because he can’t make compromises. He is extreme in that sense. There is no way other political parties can say “ok if you do this, than we do this” because he only has one goal.
Danique: But by excluding him, the people who might vote for him might think they don’t matter or they vote for him as a protest vote because he won’t govern anyway.
Maarten: I don’t really agree. But I agree that it is stupid of political parties to exclude beforehand other parties to govern with.
Danique. 50+, they didn’t exclude to govern with him.
Denise: For me it was very important that Rutte ruled out to govern with Wilders. If he hadn’t said that, I would probably not vote for the VVD. This is a really important, a fundamental point for me.
Maarten: Do you really trust him on that promise? I mean he has broken promises before.
Danique: There are a lot of people not trusting in him.
Denise: I know, but I trust in him. If he breaks his promise, he will loose half of his support, also party members. This is fundamental politics.
Maarten: It’s interesting what’s going to happen because there are so many “middle” parties in the Netherlands. We used to have 3-party-system which held around 75% of the votes, VVD, PvdA and CDA used to dominate. Now you see that the political landscapes gets broader and broader. VVD and PVV are the two biggest and then you have a lot of parties about the same size. So it’s going to be really really difficult to form a government after this election.
Let’s assume Wilders wins the elections, would he disappoint when he can’t do what he promised his voters or would there be a similar mismatch between his positions and those of his voters compared to Trump and his supporters?
Denise: People would definitely be disappointed. We live in a system which needs coalition, one party can never deliver all the ideas they promise. Each law has to pass two chambers for approval which is always kind of difficult, and then there are the coalition partner(s), so you can never fully push through with your ideas, even if they might be the best for society.
Maarten: Wilders knows this. He might consider this a big electoral risk. If he met in the middle with other parties, then his electorate would not like it. This is a huge challenge, especially at the moment he is not that high up in the polls anymore. If he were significantly bigger than all other parties, I think it would be seriously stupid if they wouldn’t let him try to form a government. He probably can’t but he should try and fail and try again. With being the biggest party comes also some responsibility and if you’re not willing to take on the responsibility, maybe you shouldn’t be that big.
Denise: Don’t you think his best option would be in the opposition?
Danique: I think so.
Maarten: Agreed. But in the Netherlands, normally the biggest party has the lead in forming a government. The others could easily shortcut him if they want to – and they are willing to do so. But I would advise against by making Wilders take up his responsibility to form a government in that scenario. However, I don’t think it’s gonna happen.
“In practice we see that almost all parties except for Wilders are very, very pro-Europe”
What do the Dutch care about? Which topics are high on the agenda? Europe, for example, seems not that high on the agenda. However, the possibility of a “Nexit” is mentioned once in awhile. Where are the pro-European Dutch voices?
Maarten: There is D66 – always been the biggest pro Europe party. The other parties always say they are critical towards Europe to not lose any votes. But in practice we see that almost all parties except for Wilders are very, very pro-Europe.
Danique: The socialist party is rather sceptical anti-Europe.
Denise: I think the Dutch find the European Union very boring. It’s not something you notice everyday. It’s a topic you’d rather not touch upon. It’s not fancy. It’s not sexy.
Maarten: And it’s complicated. A lot of people don’t know much about the EU.
Danique: But even now before the elections people seem to know too little, some couldn’t even name a single party when asked. Even in the Netherlands they don’t know everything, so that reflects on knowledge about EU.
So Europe is not a decisive topic. What are the decisive issues?
However, this relates to the European Union, doesn’t it?
Maarten: Yes, it did a lot during the high peak of the refugee crisis. But I don’t know whether it is currently the most important issue.
Danique: Nevertheless, Europe came up at the Election debates, even though it doesn’t in the public debate.
Denise: I think pensions are at this moment on top. The parties are really clashing on this issue.
Danique: Furthermore, the “Dutch values”. Parties are contrasting on going back to the “old times” versus including everyone.
Denise: Especially because the CDA proposed to make a law to get all children to know the national anthem.
Maarten: I see that as a direct attack on Geert Wilders.
Danique: There were some weird remarks referring to Christian values, like women and men have been equal for thousands of years.
Maarten: Pathetic. Still a long way to go!
Denise: If you look at the Carré Debate: only one woman and 7 men. First question she got was which politician she likes the most.
Danique: All white, male and old. We could do better.
Wrapping up: Your guess, which parties will be the top 3?
Danique: Can we be a bit ideal or optimistic? I hope PVV will not be in the top 3 – but probably won’t happen. VVD 27, CDA 25, GroenLinks 20 – still campaigning.
Maarten: I really like my party leader, and people do so too. He is fairly popular, but the party strangely is not. VVD 28 seats, PVV 22 seats CDA third 20 – not enough to form a government.
Denise: VVD 40 high hopes. PVV 15 seats, CDA 20; based on your guess Maarten, they could need the Christian Union and they would work with the CDA.
Thanks for the Interview! For more background information on the Dutch Election check out this article on LSE’s EUROPP blog.
Photo of interview by Verena Reihs. Photo of Verhagen, Rutte, and Wilders from Wikimedia Commons.1989 Generation