The Dutch Left Was Savaged at the Polls – but Its Policies Remain Unscathed

An incumbent buoyed by pandemic uncertainty, the right stealing the left's thunder with redistributive policies - sound familiar?

by Merijn Oudenampsen

18 March 2021

Mark Rutte waves
European Council / Flickr

Things were expected to be bad, but no one expected them to be this bad. After a lacklustre campaign, the conservative-liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the progressive-liberal Democrats 66 (D66) – roughly the Dutch equivalent of the Lib Dems – emerged as the big winners in the Dutch elections on Wednesday, with roughly 22% and 15% of the vote respectively. Sitting prime minister and VVD party leader Mark Rutte returns for a fourth term, and is set to become the longest-serving PM in Dutch history.

Meanwhile, the Dutch left (the Labour party, Socialist party, green party GroenLinks) suffered a historic defeat, winning a mere 15% of the vote between them, the lowest result since universal suffrage was introduced a century ago. Making matters worse, far-right parties had a decent showing, banking on the pandemic protest vote. On the morning after the elections, many were reconciling themselves to life in a solidly rightwing country.

At the same time, the results are confounding. In the run-up to the elections, pollsters observed a heavy leftward swing in the electorate, the majority of which now favour more redistributive policies. Most mainstream Dutch political parties have moved with the times, ditching austerity and embracing a more activist role for the state – a phenomenon that will be familiar to many in Britain. Raising the minimum wage, public investment funds, discouraging labour casualisation, expanded social security and redistributive taxation were suddenly common sense. Even the VVD and D66, both pro-business parties, shifted left. This mainstreaming of its hallmark policies presented a problem for the Dutch left, just as it has been for UK Labour: the political mainstream was stealing its thunder.

As a result, socio-economic issues were never front-and-centre. Instead, the rather nebulous concept of leadership played an outsize role in the election campaign. This played into Rutte’s hands. Thanks to his many televised addresses during the pandemic, the prime minister, has over the course of the past year cultivated an image as father of the fatherland. Despite the government’s rather inept crisis management, voters desired strong leadership and stability. They decided to play it safe and stick with what they knew, fearing removing the captain in the middle of a storm. In other words, the rally-around-the-flag effect in evidence across the globe did not fail to make its mark on the Dutch electorate.

Pointing to the extremely fragmented political landscape, commentators had predicted that strategic voting would be limited at this election. Normally, the largest leftwing party can count on a significant boost from voters who want to pull the incoming government to the left. It turns out the commentators were wrong. Unforeseen by the polls, undecided leftwing voters flocked to D66 in droves. The significance of this will be difficult to assess until we have more data on voting motivations. It could either be that D66’s leftward turn appeared credible enough to voters. It could also be that voters chose D66 on the basis of its progressive cultural stance, as one of the only parties to voice clear opposition to Freedom party leader Geert Wilders’ anti-immigrationism.

As for the Dutch far right, it is now increasingly splintered but also increasingly popular. The lockdown has split the far right: Thierry Baudet, long seen as its torchbearer, has gone full-on Trump, opposing the lockdown and vaccine, while spouting conspiracy theories about “globalist elites” who use the pandemic to impose a new world order. Despite an internal party crisis and antisemitic and racist comments on internal party apps, Baudet still won 5% of the vote yesterday, capturing the lockdown protest vote. The largest force however is Geert Wilders’ Freedom party (11%) who has got a new lease on life after fading into the background in recent years. Wilders has chosen to take the pandemic seriously, and oppose the government on rightwing nationalist grounds, such as immigration and Dutch taxpayer money going to southern Europeans and undeserving immigrants.

What now for the Dutch left? Many will be poring over the election results in the coming days in hopes of an answer. The bizarre nature of this pandemic election makes definite conclusions difficult. Though this is perhaps cold comfort, the demise of the Dutch left does not signal a lack of support for leftist policies; on the contrary, if surveys are to be believed, such support has only increased during the pandemic. Some have argued that the left is hindered by its “wokeness”, socially progressive stances seen to alienate the large body of more socially conservative, though still self-declared leftist voters. Considering that D66 is very much “woke”, and that more traditional leftist parties such as the Socialist Party have lost out, this thesis is not born out by the results. Perhaps the Dutch voter, like the bored lover, will only appreciate what they had when the left is gone.

Merijn Oudenampsen is political scientist and sociologist. His book The Rise of the Dutch New Right: An Intellectual History of the Rightward Shift in Dutch Politics was published by Routledge last year.

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