originally posted at The Guardian Thursday 2 March 2017 03.17 EST
What’s the story and why is it important?
The Netherlands holds parliamentary elections on 15 March. Polls have long predicted that the anti-Islam, anti-EU Geert Wilders’ populist Party for Freedom (PVV) could emerge as the country’s largest party, although Wilders is thought unlikely to enter government.
After Britain’s EU referendum and the election of Donald Trump in the US (read more on the connections between the two here and here), a PVV victory could be seen as fitting a developing narrative of nativist, anti-establishment movements on the rise.
The probable strong showing by the far-right Front National leader, Marine Le Pen, in May’s French presidential poll reinforces this view (the Guardian’s French election coverage is here). Some observers believe the EU’s future is in play.
What’s the political landscape and how does the system work?
There are 150 MPs in the Dutch parliament, meaning a government needs 76 seats to form a majority. No single party ever manages this and the Netherlands has been governed by coalitions for more than a century.
Parliament is elected by proportional representation in a single, nationwide constituency – which means that any party that wins 0.67% of the national vote is assured of a seat (key facts about the Dutch electoral system here).
Dutch politics have been marked in recent decades by a sharp decline in support for the three main parties of government from the centre-right and left. Their share of the vote has shrunk from more than 80% in the 1980s to a projected 40% this year.
This is a trend visible across Europe; see more about it here. In the Netherlands, it has been paralleled by a proliferation of smaller special interest parties: no fewer than 28 of them, many new, are contesting this election. As many as 14 are forecast to win seats, including eight with 10 or more MPs.
It is this fragmentation of the vote, rather than a big increase in support, that could see the PVV become the largest party. The movements that produced Brexit and Trump won more than half the vote; Wilders’ is forecast to get below 20% (more from the Peilingwijzer poll aggregator here).
Who is Wilders and what does he want?
Wilders was elected a Liberal VVD party MP 19 years ago, then became an independent before founding the PVV in 2006 – a party defined mostly by its virulent opposition to Islam and what it describes as the Islamisation of the Netherlands. Politico has more on his background here.
Wilders was found guilty of inciting discrimination against Dutch Moroccans last December and at his campaign launchdenounced “Moroccan scum who make the streets unsafe”. He lives under 24-hour police protection.
The PVV is not a normal party; Wilders is its only member. Its one-page election manifesto (in English here) promises mainly anti-Muslim measures such as closing mosques and Islamic schools, banning sales of the Qur’an and barring Muslim migrants.
It also pledges to withdraw the Netherlands from the EU, close Dutch borders, and spend more on security and defence and less on wind power and foreign aid. Several proposals breach international law and the Dutch constitution.
Which other parties are standing?
The VVD of prime minister Mark Rutte, on target for between 23 and 27 seats, and its coalition partner, the centre-left Labour party (PvdA), are on course to lose 30% and 70% of their MPs respectively.
Medium-sized parties likely to win between 10 and 20 seats are the Christian democrats (CDA) and liberal-progressive D66, both parties of government since the 1960s, plus the more radical Socialist party (SP) and fast-growing Green-Left (GL), likely to quadruple its MPs. More about the main Dutch political parties here.
Smaller parties forecast to win fewer than 10 seats include two religious parties; the Party for Animals (PvdD); the 50Plus party for pensioners; the anti-EU Forum for Democracy (FvD); and Denk (Think), which courts mainly Muslim immigrants.
And there’s a party called Niet Stemmers (Non-Voters) for the 25% of Dutch voters who are expected to abstain. It promises that its MPs – should it get any – will not vote in parliament either.
What are the issues?
Unemployment is at a five-year low and economic growth is at 2.3%: the fundamentals of the Dutch economy are recovering well. (The Dutch government’s economic policy bureau has more on that here).
Refugees remain a concern, but less so than during the peak of Europe’s crisis in 2015. About 31,000 asylum seekers registered in the Netherlands last year, far fewer than the 90,000-plus the government predicted.
Immigration – and integration – are a big issue. (You can read a thorough, if slightly outdated, review of the main Dutch immigration issues here.) Wilders talks of “Henk and Ingrid”, an imaginary Dutch couple suffering at the hands of a corrupt political elite, a despotic EU and – of course – entitled Muslim immigrants.
His influence, the fact Rutte has also demanded migrant communities conform to Dutch norms, and Europe’s current political climate mean the dominant themes inevitably include multiculturalism, globalisation, sovereignty, Dutch values, and how far the EU works – or doesn’t work – for the Netherlands.
Who will win the most seats?
The overwhelming majority of polls since summer 2015 have shown the PVV narrowly ahead of the VVD.
But Wilders’ support seems to be fading: the Peilingwijzer suggests the PVV has shed three to four seats in the past month, giving it between 16% and 17% of the vote – at best neck-and-neck, and sometimes behind Rutte’s party.
This would be consistent with past elections, when the PVV was ahead until the final weeks. But polls also indicate more than half of voters could yet change their minds.
What happens if Wilders does win the most seats?
The PVV may not get the chance to try to form a government even if it does become the largest party. Under the Dutch system, the new parliament appoints an “informateur”, usually a senior politician, to explore likely coalitions.
Since the VVD and all main parties to its left have pledged not to work with Wilders, it is hard to see how the PVV – even with 30-plus seats – would be capable of convincing 46 more MPs to join it in government.
Wilders has said his exclusion would spark a revolution, but it would not be the first time the Netherlands’ largest party has been shut out: it has happened three times to the PvdA, including once when it won more than a third of the vote.
So it is unlikely Wilders will end up in government. He may not even try: in 2010, the PVV propped up a minority Rutte government, but quit abruptly two years later. Many expect Wilders to prefer to remain an outsider rather than compromise.
So what might the government look like?
The SP has pledged not to work with the VVD, which complicates matters. But probable permutations revolve around the mainstream VVD, PvdA, CDA and D66 parties, with the addition of one or more smaller parties. The fast-advancing GL could prove a key player.
Polls suggest at least five parties will be needed to form a government without the PVV. Although this time the differences between several possible coalition partners are not major, the coalition-forming process could take some time: the average in the Netherlands is three months.