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I grew up in the Netherlands and every time I return, I feel like a time-traveller. The country I have in my head is from the 1970s and 1980s, so when I popped back last week, I fixated on the differences. There are lots of skyscrapers! There are non-white people on the trains! Climate change has changed the Dutch soul. At this time of year, when I was a kid, there’d be the anticipation of skating on frozen canals. Not any more. Yet so much remains the same: cyclists in the rain, cafés that look unchanged since 1923, radio news that’s mostly about non-events and the sense of a sedate haven from a scary world.
Next Wednesday’s elections will probably produce a centre-right coalition, led by the rightwing liberals VVD and the more centrist Nieuw Sociaal Contract. The coalition won’t transform the Netherlands. The Dutch don’t do wild political leaps, not like certain countries I could mention. The mission of every Dutch coalition is to make boring, technocratic compromises.
But an election offers a glimpse of a country’s mood. More than that. Dutch politics, because it’s like a supermarket of almost perfect voter choice, is a lead indicator of where other European voters are headed. To see the Netherlands is to see a broader political future, notably for the right.
Most Dutch voters binned party loyalty decades ago, after secularisation freed people from voting for religious parties. Elections are no longer about tribal identity, but a ruthless shopping around for the party that caters to their latest needs. That encourages political entrepreneurs to start new parties. The Nieuw Sociaal Contract was founded in August by former Christian Democrat Pieter Omtzigt. The pro-farmers movement BBB emerged in 2019, the co-creation of a communications firm. Proportional representation means there’s a place for everyone. There are 26 parties in this election, catering to some very niche tastes; Party for the Animals is comparatively mainstream.
What foreign coverage there is of Dutch elections tends to focus on the far right. This is an understandably desperate bid to make Dutch politics interesting to outsiders, but it misses the point. Far-right parties are on the margins of the Dutch picture. Since the far right emerged in 2001, it has spent a total of 87 days in government. Its combined vote in any parliamentary election has never beaten 20 per cent and won’t this time. Rather, the energy of Dutch politics is elsewhere: in the emergence of a new right that is both post-Trumpian and post-Thatcherite.
The vibe of the principal parties in this campaign is a dry moderation. Leaders don’t shout at each other in debates. The BBB, which wants to save farmers from environmental regulations, briefly became a darling of the global Trumpian right, but has faded in the polls and now tries to sound sensible, dull and Dutch. Omtzigt is a cerebral moral crusader for better government.
He has introduced a new Dutch political keyword, bestaanszekerheid, which literally means “certainty of existence”. The word encompasses a range of issues, from incomes to the nightmare of finding a home in an overpopulated country that keeps getting fuller. Bestaanszekerheid captures the widespread desire for a big state that looks after citizens. So the Dutch right has de-emphasised its traditional promises of lower taxes and smaller government.
The campaign’s other keyword is migratie. Cutting migration is the last old-style rightist offering. The VVD and NSC are pushing the issue, but without making it into a culture war. The VVD’s leader, Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius, her party’s successor to the eternal Mark Rutte, would be the first woman to occupy the “Little Tower”, where the Dutch prime minister works, and also the first immigrant. She arrived as a refugee, aged seven, after her father, a leftwing trade unionist, fled Turkey. Omtzigt’s Syrian-Orthodox wife was a child refugee from Turkey, too.
In short, anti-migration policies — which are shared, in moderated form, by the Dutch left — are couched in pragmatic rather than rabid language. The same goes for the right’s tepid Euroscepticism, or its polite reluctance to do much about carbon emissions. There’s no room in Dutch governments for Trumpian conspiracy-theorists who deny climate change or cheerlead for Vladimir Putin.
The best-selling items in today’s Dutch political supermarket offer a preview of a new European right: quieter, saner, big-state, resigned to membership of the EU, but still anti-migration. This is the place where Giorgia Meloni in Italy, Marine Le Pen in France and their new would-be counterpart Sahra Wagenknecht in Germany are converging. The Netherlands just gets there first.
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