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Best Dutch PM in a crisis? They can’t believe it’s not Rutte

A buoyant Mark Rutte visits his hairdresser in Leidschendam after lockdown, during campaigning for the elections - Credit: Getty Images

Next week’s elections in the Netherlands will be seen as a test of how voters assess their government’s performances in the Covid crisis. 

Four years ago, the world watched the Dutch elections – among the first major votes after the Brexit referendum and election of Donald Trump – for a clue to whether the anti-European, populist right was poised for a Europe-wide breakthrough. It wasn’t… just about.

Now, the Dutch are once again kicking off a high-stakes continental election cycle, this time dominated by the corona crisis. Germany will go to the polls later this year in historic post-Angela Merkel elections and France next year when Emmanuel Macron might be hard-pushed to survive into the second round.

This year, with all eyes on the Dutch again, their politics are, if anything, even more fractured and polarised. Yet, the country seems set to eschew radical options in favour of stability and familiarity. 

A telling moment came in a recent election debate on Dutch TV – one of two scheduled before the elections on March 17 – when the leader of currently the largest left-wing opposition party, the Green-Left’s Jesse Klaver, challenged the country’s three-term prime minister, Mark Rutte. “Mr Rutte, you’re polling at 300 seats, you don’t need the lying and cheating.” The Tweede Kamer, the lower chamber of the Dutch parliament, which is at stake, only has 150 seats.

The continued dominance of Rutte and his centre-right, liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, VVD, seems assured, as even the opposition has conceded.

This is despite the resignation of Rutte and his coalition government some two months ago, amid the fall-out from a damaging benefits scandal in which the tax authority had erroneously hounded thousands of low-income parents. The scandal also saw accusations of racial profiling.

The affair ended the career of the opposition Labour Party’s leader, who was minister of social affairs at the time the abuses took place, but not Rutte’s, who has been PM since 2010, attesting to his Teflon quality.

His VVD may even improve on its 2017 result, to a large degree, so most commentators agree, on the back of the now acting-prime minister’s personal appeal and his standing as a crisis manager.

The Dutch electoral system is one of proportional representation, with a low threshold to enter parliament. A bunch of newcomers is thronging to get in, making predictions even less certain. And in recent days, as the campaign turns the spotlight on other matters besides the handling of the coronavirus crisis, Rutte’s numbers have slipped slightly, though that’s not yet expected to alter the results significantly.

This is a far cry from 2017 when Rutte was seen as fighting for his political life and the soul of his country, if not the continent. Geert Wilders with his Party for Freedom, PVV, sought to ride the post-Brexit and Trump, right-wing populist wave and challenge the VVD for pole position.

The anti-EU, anti-immigrant and outspokenly anti-Islam Wilders and his party ended up forming the second largest faction in parliament and went into opposition.

Rutte, a political chameleon if anything, moved to the right four years ago in order to spike Wilders’ guns. He bluntly told those with an immigrant background to “behave or leave”. Even before that, his efforts to appear tough on immigration and his austerity-minded politics had arguably helped create the climate for the tax authority’s hunt for non-existent benefits fraud that this year led to his government’s pro-forma resignation.

While being overall pro-European, Rutte has never been soft on the EU. In the 2012 elections he had vowed not to send another cent to debt-hit Greece, a promise that he had to break. More recently, he and his Christian Democrat finance minister, Wopke Hoekstra, led the opposition of the more frugally-minded EU countries against the bloc’s Covid recovery fund.

This resistance too in the end appeared more an issue of optics than principle. During the recent election debate, Wilders took a fanciful swipe at Rutte’s perceived caving in over the matter: “Instead of spending €43bn on our healthcare system, they (the coalition parties) gave that money to countries such as Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal.”

Despite Rutte’s seemingly comfortable lead, there is still a stable, if not growing, constituency for Wilders’ ideas. His PVV is predicted to roughly maintain its 2017 strength and could well remain the second largest party in parliament.

Rutte has once again ruled out forming a coalition with Wilders. This probably more out of political expediency than principle. In an earlier incarnation when heading a minority government, he happily leaned on Wilders’ support in parliament.

The PVV recently published a 52-page programme, as opposed to just one sheet of talking points in 2017. Its call for banning the spread of Islam through mosques and the Koran was dubbed unconstitutional by commentators. Yet its message still resonates with a large section of the electorate, in part helped by a decidedly left-wing stance on many social-economic issues, such as pensions and benefits.

Rutte’s gains, if any, will come at the expense of two of his centre-right coalition partners. In all, the far-right populist camp is actually set to gain, with the increasingly Trumpian Thierry Baudet and his Forum for Democracy, FvD, projected at least to double their representation from currently two seats.

An FvD splinter that deemed Baudet and his entourage too outrageous, among allegations of racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic utterances, is also in the running to gain representation.

Baudet’s FvD shocked Dutch politics in 2019 by becoming the joint biggest party in the country’s less powerful upper chamber. During the corona crisis, Baudet has aligned himself with the thriving virus-conspiracy and anti-lockdown movement.

The level of violence in the Netherlands, both during anti-curfew riots in January and as expressed in repeated attacks against test locations, is unique in Europe, although similar sentiments exist elsewhere. Baudet’s anti-lockdown stance may explain why several parties that sprang from that movement may not get enough votes to enter parliament.

The fragmentation on the right and the emergence of a plethora of small hopefuls is mirrored on the left. In all, 37 parties are competing in the elections, the most since the Second World War. A record 15 could enter parliament, compared to the 13 that are represented now.

While many of the divisions on the right reflect clashes of personalities, on the left they partly stem from identity politics. One party appeals mostly to those of Turkish descent, another more to those with a Moroccan background, and yet another is focused on anti-racism. One party, Volt, has an outspoken pro-EU platform.

The left as a whole has failed to capitalise on the effects of austerity that have become painfully clear during the pandemic. In the wake of the closure of hospitals and intensive care units, the Netherlands, one of the wealthiest countries in the EU, has had to send some Covid patients to Germany. Yet, attacks both by the left wing parties and Wilders on this issue have not dented Rutte’s lead.

The enormous sums of money that the government in the Netherlands, as elsewhere, has dedicated to supporting the economy during the crisis have helped create an impression of a softer, less austerity-driven coalition. Rutte’s belated conversion on one of the Netherlands’ signature racism issues, the blackface Zwarte Piet figure of the traditional Dutch Sinterklaas celebration, has also softened his image. He now says that it’s hurtful and should stop.

Yet, the impression that the VVD and its main ally, the Christian Democrat CDA, are moving to the left is belied by their post-corona plans. The VVD programme would expand spending only on defence, while lowering the overall tax burden, and Hoekstra’s CDA has abandoned calls for a 10% increase in the minimum wage.

On the environment, one of the other headline-grabbing issues in the elections, Rutte uses Europe as a foil for avoiding further measures in the short run. Future steps have to be Europe-wide he argues, in order to keep companies from leaving the Netherlands for elsewhere in the EU.

The coalition’s conservative approach, preserving the status quo on many issues and opting for cautious, right-leaning solutions on others, plays well during the pandemic. But there’s a growing clamour from both the left and the right for more radical answers to structural fissures, whether socio-economic or identity based.

There’s unease over a wide range of issues, from the rising cost of healthcare to the tight housing market to employment insecurity and beyond. The question is whether the methods used by Rutte and his partners to hold back the flood will ultimately lead to the dam breaking in a more spectacular fashion. All of Europe will be watching.

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