On elections in the Netherlands from the other side of the Ocean

Last summer, I moved to Boston to start working as a Marie Curie Fellow at Boston University. Living abroad for an extended period of time and experiencing US elections from up close, changed my perspective on elections in the Netherlands. On the one hand, it increased my awareness of how broader trends also affect Dutch elections, while on the other hand it also made me more conscious of some idiosyncrasies of Dutch elections.

Contagious populism?

The tide of populism has been rising both in Europe and in the United States. There is a surge of populist political movements across the EU, with political parties appealing to and claiming to embody the will of the people, juxtaposing the people and themselves against the establishment or elite. Some of these movements have already been successful, while others have good perspectives in upcoming elections. Think about Brexit, the political demise of Matteo Renzi in Italy, the election of Trump in the US, but also about the political prospects of Marine Le Pen in France and Alternative für Deutschland in Germany for example. Both right-wing and left-wing populists are on the march in different parts of Europe. Their prospects are enhanced by the immigration crisis and fears of terrorism as well as anti-EU sentiments, issues that are the main focus of the populist parties’ anti-immigration and anti-globalization platforms. It is also in this context that the good position of Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV) in the polls in the Netherland should be viewed.

The populist momentum is thus affecting election themes and discourses, with populist parties campaigning on a platform drawing on fear of refugees and immigration and promising to give power back to the people. The discourse of Geert Wilders and Donald Trump are very similar in that respect. Although the US and Dutch contexts are different, the issues overlap: anti-immigrant policies against Muslims (but also Mexicans in the US case) and resistance of economic and political integration, with Trump attacking the North American Free Trade Agreement and the more recently negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership, while Wilders points his arrows at the European Union. The difference between the US and the Netherlands is that in the latter, ‘mainstream’ political parties are increasingly emulating the type of discourse that seems to have brought Wilders so much political gain. The Dutch Order of Lawyers analysed previous and current election programmes and have flagged an increasing number of policy plans that are at odds with the principle of the rule of law in this year’s programmes, such as plans to ban Muslim immigration and curtail the direct application of human rights provisions from international treaties. While the largest number of red flags were found in Wilders’ programme, an increasing number were also detected in the programmes of some of the mainstream political parties, such as the Liberals.

Dutch versus American election campaign

Notwithstanding the similarity in important issues and discourses in the Dutch and American election campaigns, the institutional differences between the two political systems make for significantly different campaign styles. The essentially two-party elections and one-party government in the US coincide with an often polarized election campaign. Furthermore ‘negative campaigning’, aimed at damaging your opponent’s reputation in debates and by means of commercials is customary in the US. As a result of the multi-party system and coalition governments in the Netherlands, parties need to focus both on differences and similarities with other parties during their campaign, finding the right balance between opposing and flirting with their potential future coalition parties. This has become even more important as the Netherlands seem to be turning into a country of ‘small big parties’ – traditionally big parties as the socialists and Christian democrats have gained smaller numbers of seats over time, while new parties have surfaced. In the current elections, 14 parties are expected to obtain seats, three of which have entered the elections for the first time. The political landscape has thus become increasingly fragmented and a larger number of parties is likely to be necessary to form a coalition government with a majority in parliament. This moderates the tone of the debate, as most parties do not want to make enemies which could negatively affect their chances in the coalition negotiations. An important exception is the Freedom Party: most other parties have indicated in advance that they will not enter into a coalition with the Freedom Party, and Wilders’ own campaign is very critical of the current parties in government, particularly the Liberals and their leader Mark Rutte with whom the Freedom Party competes for a majority on the right. Overall, however, the focus in the Dutch election debates is more on content than on negative personal campaigns.

In this fragmented political landscape, the Dutch voters have to balance their party preferences based on ideology and values and their wish to vote for a party that will actually end up in government. Strategic voting has become increasingly complex, and despite the predictions of polls, the outcome of the elections remains uncertain, not to mention the eventual party coalition that will form a government.

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