The Netherlands – EU Parliamentary Elections

Political Background

The Netherlands has been part of the EU and the Euro since their inception.

The Netherlands has possibly the most consensual political system in the entire EU, due to the historical legacy of sharp divisions on religious lines. The Dutch have a saying: “One Dutchman is a theologian; two Dutchmen are a Church; three Dutchmen are a schism.”

The national system imposes a very low barrier to entry – only 0.67% of the vote is required to enter the national parliament, and the Netherlands has the most proportional elections in the world. There has never been a true single party government in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands was historically divided in a system known as pillarisation. This was a system of voluntary religious segregation. There were four pillars – Protestant, Catholic, Socialist and General/ /Liberal (liberals generally opposed pillarisation but formed a de facto pillar as the only ones left).

Pillars had their own social institutions and structures. For instance, a member of the Catholic pillar would listen to the Catholic Radio Broadcasting Organisation and watch the Roman Catholic Church Association broadcasts on public TV. They would join the Catholic trade union, the NKV, and read the Catholic newspaper De Volkskrant, they would attend Catholic schools and universities, and go to football on a Sunday (Saturday football was reserved for Protestants). Even hospitals were pillarised (Catholics would attend hospitals with a white or yellow cross).

There are records of Catholic priests checking the tuning on the radios of their congregations. There are also records of members of the Socialist pillar listing their religious affliation as ‘SDAP’ (the pre-war Socialist party) on their census forms.

The Dutch typically led segregated existences, interacting only with members of their own pillar. A member of the Protestant pillar might only come across a Catholic in a brief moment at a bus stop in an irregular trip to Amsterdam.

Each pillar, of course, had its own political parties. Post-war those parties were the Labour Party, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (the liberal VVD) the Catholic People’s Party (KVP), and the two Protestant parties, the Anti-Revolutionary Party, and the Christian Historical Union.

The three religious parties would tend to form a governing bloc, and would form coalitions with Labour and the VVD as they saw fit.

Pillarisation began to breakdown in the 1960s and 1970s, resulting in the rise of new parties such as Democrats 66, a left-liberal party that was explicitly anti-pillarisation. An increasingly educated, mobile populace coming to grips with the beginnings of mass-media and holding increasingly irreligious viewpoints came to see pillars as outmoded and began to move beyond pillarisation.

The three religious parties, seeing their electoral support wane, responded by merging into a single party, the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), which presented itself as a centrist, pragmatic party of stability and sound political and economic management. Nonetheless the CDA remained dominant. By 1994 no government had been formed without a religious party since universal suffrage in 1918. The CDA could legitimately claim, as one of its leaders once did to a baffled US Senator: “We rule this country”.

Democrats ’66, the Netherlands most resolutely secular party, long dreamed of getting the CDA out of government and forming a coalition with Labour and the conservative-liberal VVD. In 1994 it got its wish. The three parties formed a coalition, known as the Purple coalition (as it brought together Labour red and VVD blue) under Labour leader Wim Kok.

The purple coalition ruled until 2002. Its economic policies were predominantly centrist, but it was extremely socially progressive, legalising prostitution, euthanasia and becoming the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage in 2001.

The coalition, however, obscured the identities of its partners. Labour had become wed to a tax reducing, market-orientated government whereas the VVD was unable to articulate its electorate’s growing unease about immigration.

The Netherlands is now 5% Muslim, with around 17% in Amsterdam. The biggest Muslim populations in the Netherlands originate from Morocco and Turkey.

Unease had been quietly growing about Islamic immigration and multiculturalism for some time.

These concerns found their vocalisation in the form of Pim Fortuyn. Fortuyn, an openly-gay ex-Marxist sociology professor and civil servant was an unlikely voice for anti-immigration concerns.

However, Fortuyn was a highly charismatic and effective orator, who argued that Islam represented an existential threat to Dutch liberalism. He strongly supported gay marriage, and liberal laws on drugs, prostitution, sex, euthanasia and so on. He saw Islam as a threat to these liberal laws. In this sense Fortuynism represented a unique strand of right-wing populism, a sort of liberal reactionaryism which refused to tolerate what it saw as an intolerant religion.

He believed that Muslim culture had never experienced a modernisation, or reformation, and was thus ‘backwards’ (the word he used actually formally means ‘backwards’ but is also considered close to ‘retarded’ in some ways, Fortuyn insisted that he meant it in the formal sense).

Fortuyn’s style was charismatic but also extremely combative and he could be very foul-mouthed. He famously debated an imam on national TV and goaded him by flaunting his homosexuality, detailing sex acts that he had performed. When the imam inevitably flew off the handle he calmly turned to the camera and told viewers that such men represented a Trojan horse in Muslim immigration. He stated his willingness to revoke Article 1 of the Dutch constitution (which prevents discrimination on religious or ethnic grounds) and stated his support for freezing migration from Muslim countries.

In doing so, Fortuyn clearly differentiated himself as an opponent of the established political class, who was intrinsically different to it in his willingness to speak his mind, freed of the constraints upon mainstream politicians who feared media backlash or upsetting potential coalition partners.

Otherwise Fortuyn’s politics were not particularly radical, although he held populist, anti-establishment views about government and denounced the consensual nature of Dutch politics. Though he was frequently compared to right-wing radicals like Jorg Haider of Austria or Jean-Marie Le Pen of France he always denounced them.

Fortuyn’s party, the List Pim Fortuyn, polled strongly as the 2002 election approached. Shockingly, nine days before the election, Fortuyn was assassinated by an animal rights protester, who said he did it as Fortuyn exploited Muslims as scapegoats.

Fortuyn’s party came second in the elections, and formed part of a short-lived government which fell apart as the LPF’s band of political neophytes fell into infighting, corruption and incompetency without their leader.

The LPF subsequently lost numerous seats at the 2003 election and disappeared entirely at the 2006 election.

Fortuyn, had, however, rewritten the rules of Dutch politics. Mainstream politicians embraced the more moderate parts of Fortuyn’s programme and sought to embrace the immigration issue.

Relations with Islam were put on the table again with the murder of Theo van Gogh (a great grandnephew of Vincent) by a Muslim. Van Gogh was a film director known for his descriptions of Arabs as ‘goatfuckers’ who produced anti-Islamic films.

A little known VVD MP, Geert Wilders founded a new party in 2006, the Party for Freedom, which has become the major right-wing populist party in the Netherlands. Between 2010 and 2012 Wilders attempted to have his cake and eat it by supporting a minority centre-right government in confidence votes in exchange for a coalition agreement with a quarter dedicated to immigration and integration.

On the left too, populism was on the rise. Less spectacularly than the rise of Fortuyn, the Purple years also saw the rise of the left-populist Socialist Party, which burst onto the scene with a third place finish in 2006 and was the largest party in polls in around 2011.

Dutch politics has become the most volatile in Western Europe, besides Italy, with ten parties or more battling for supremacy in a highly volatile environment where massive poll shifts happen regularly and without warning. No government has managed to survive a whole term in office since the first term of the Purple government, 1994-8, and election campaigns that start out being said to be a battle between Labour and the Party for Freedom for first can end in a victory for the VVD (as happened in 2010). In fairness, however, volatility is predominantly within left or right blocks with movement between left wing parties on the one hand and right-wing parties on the other, but less rarely between them. Hence left and right rarely win clear functioning majorities and governments often crossover the centre of the spectrum.

No government has been re-elected since 1998 either, and government parties typically see support flow rapidly to similar competitors. Hence, coalition partners often have a tendency to break coalitions early in the hope of stemming this flow of voters.

The Dutch economy experienced only a slight recession due to the 2008-9 financial crisis, however growth was initially slow and the economy subsequently fell into a double dip, with a second recession from 2011 until 2013. This was due to the Eurozone crisis and a slump in the housing market. The economy is projected to grow by an uninspiring 0.75% in 2014.

One concern is the fact that the Netherlands has the highest level of household debt in the entire Eurozone at 110% of GDP. With a 20% slump in the cost of homes, around 16% of Dutch homes owed more on their mortgages than their homes were worth at the end of 2013. High levels of household debt are encouraged by the Dutch system of allowing home owners to fully deduct interest payments on their mortgage loan from their taxable income (this policy has been in place since 1893 and the Dutch government also provides large subsidies to renters). The effect of high debt has been to seriously harm Dutch consumer confidence.

The Netherlands has tended to put a premium on sustainable government finances in recent decades (after bad experiences from continual deficits during the 50s, 60s and 70s) and was running a slight budget surplus before the 2008 crash. The government subsequently ran a deficit of 4.9% in 2009, outside the EU’s rules but rather healthy compared to other European states. This has resulted in a bout of austerity. The deficit is projected to just fall below the EU’s 3% guideline in 2014, at 2.9% and continue to fall to 2.1% in 2015. Austerity has been unpopular in the Netherlands, and this should mean that the government won’t need to implement further cuts and tax increases.

Unemployment is officially 8.7%, around 2.5% higher than pre-crash, but relatively healthy compared to other EU countries. However historically the Netherlands has had very high rates of disability claimants, and while this has fallen since a peak in the 1990s it does suggest that the ‘real’ unemployment rate may be higher as the unemployed have been foisted onto disability benefits as a way of hiding them.

As a founding member of the EU the Dutch were traditionally considered to be rather pro-European. However, the result of the 2005 referendum on the European Constitution seriously changed this perception. Following a week on from a relatively narrow rejection of the constitution by the French, 61.5% of the Dutch rejected the constitution on a decent turnout of 63.3%.

Dutch Euroscepticism has been fuelled by the immigration issue, the position of the Dutch as the highest net contributors to the EU budget (on a per capita basis) and fear of Turkish accession to the EU. The 2005 yes campaign was also criticised for its hyperbole, making the EU look even more like a project of out-of-touch political elites than it usually does. Christian Democrat ministers warned of potential war, or of the Netherlands becoming a Greater Switzerland. The VVD was forced to withdraw a controversial ad in which rejection was connected with the Holocaust, the Serbian genocide in Srebinica and the 2004 terrorist attacks in Madrid.

Mainstream politicians have also become increasingly Eurosceptic due to issue competition with increasingly popular fringe parties who tend to be more Eurosceptic, on both the left and the right.

The Dutch have become one of the most hardline negotiators in the Eurozone crisis as a result. The current Dutch finance, Jeroen Dijsselbloem (Labour), is President of the Eurogroup of Eurozone finance ministers, and led negotiations with Cyrpus on its bailout; he was largely seen as responsible for the EU’s very tough position on Cyprus. The current PM, Mark Rutte (VVD) has backed a Commissioner for Budgetary Discipline with the power to impose tax increases or budget cuts on Eurozone economies failing to meet their budgetary commitments. According to European Council President, Herman van Rompuy, Rutte also threatened to withdraw the Netherlands from the Eurozone in 2012 if an unpopular ‘reform contract’ was pushed through by the EU (it wasn’t, though it was opposed by many other European leaders).

Electoral System

The Dutch will elect 26 MEPs, the same as it received after the Lisbon Treaty’s ratification redistributed seats.

The Dutch use a semi-open list system to elect their MEPs. The country serves as one constituency for the day. Voters vote for parties, but can cast a single vote for a favoured candidate on a party list. Normally seats are apportioned to candidates based on their ranking on the list, but if an individual candidate wins more than 0.96% of the vote they are elected ‘out of order’ and sent to the top of the list.

Political parties may form electoral alliances where two parties can pool their votes to win better representation.

In reality, however, it is very rare to see someone elected ‘out of order’ in the Netherlands as parties encourage voters to vote for their top candidate, known in the Netherlands as the lijsttrekker (lit. ‘list-puller’) who is the party’s lead candidate. Votes for the lijsttrekker are seen as an endorsement of their leadership. Sometimes parties put a lijstduwer (list-pusher) on the last place of their list. Often this will be a famous elder statesman of the party, a former PM for instance, or a well-loved celebrity. Generally lijstduwer’s do not actually want to be elected but they can help attract votes for their party.

The Dutch typically have relatively high turnouts, which makes their low turnouts in European elections all the more surprising. In 2009 turnout was just 36.9%. Turnout may be further depressed this year by the fact that the election happens just two months after the Dutch were last called to the polls, for municipal elections in March.

2009 Election Result

Party European Political Party Votes Seats
Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) European People’s Party 20.1% 5
Party for Freedom (PVV) None 17.0% 4
Labour Party (PvdA) Socialists and Democrats 12.1% 3
People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe 11.4% 3
Democrats ’66 (D66) Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe 11.3% 3
GreenLeft (GL) European Green Party 8.9% 3
Socialist Party European United Left 7.1% 2
ChristianUnion (CU) & Reformed Political Party (SGP) European Conservatives and Reformists & Europe of Freedom and Democracy 6.8% 2
Party for the Animals (PvdD) None 3.5% 0

Other parties notable in this election:


Likely results

Polls in the Netherlands can be fairly unreliable due to the volatile nature of the electorate. However recent polls seem to suggest a three way race for first place between the PVV, VVD and D66, all of which are likely to win 4 or 5 seats. The Socialists are likely to come in fourth , winning 3-4. The CDA is likely to win 2-4, Labour are likely to take 2-3, the CU/SGP list is likely to take 2 seats, perhaps 3 if they’re lucky, and GreenLeft and 50PLUS are likely to take 1 seat a piece. PvdD may take a seat if it has a good day.

As is now becoming the norm in the Netherlands, this represents a complete upending of the result from 2009.