The Netherlands is considered a left-liberal country, but in reality it is evenly divided between left and right. The elections of June 9 indicate a slight tilt to the right, which in itself is not a dramatic event: on many occasions in the past the right had a small majority. But media outlets are reporting the outcome of the elections as a huge change in Dutch society.
It is not. It changed ten years ago.
The unrest among Dutch voters has been visible since the rise of Pim Fortuyn, the amazing Dutch politician who was killed in 2002 by a radical leftist animal-rights activist. A couple of the main issues in the Netherlands (or Holland — the name Holland is used for only the two most western provinces of this small country) had been neglected by the traditional political parties, and Pim Fortuyn was the intellectual, emotional, and theatrical politician who was able to bring these two issues — immigration and the future of the welfare state — to the forefront of the political debate.
Holland is still struggling with Fortuyn’s legacy. He called for a stop to immigration of people from Islamic countries, and for a reformation of the expensive welfare state. Fortuyn, who was an openly gay man and proud about it, was worried about the very conservative values Muslim immigrants brought with them to Holland from their remote villages in northeastern Morocco. Fortuyn warned about the negative effects of a new group of immigrants who had left their countries for economic reasons, but didn’t understand — and even rejected — the values of the new country to which they had moved. The tolerance, the liberties, and modest riches of Holland were the result of its Protestant values and Judeo-Christian roots.
After many failed efforts to have his political ideas accepted by the established parties, Fortuyn started his own political movement. The polls at the time indicated that within six months his movement could draw one-third of the total electorate. It would mean an electoral revolution.
Fortuyn was about to become the first openly gay prime minister when he was murdered. His death is still an open wound in Dutch society.
Geert Wilders is the direct heir of Fortuyn’s message.
Wilders was MP for the VVD, the conservative-liberal party (as in classical liberal), and ran into trouble with his party’s leadership because of his strong opposition to the possible EU membership of Turkey. He considered Turkey an Islamic country alien to the core values of Judeo-Christian Europe.
For centuries, Holland has been a functional coalition of religious minorities. In the 16th century, various Protestant creeds united and fought the occupying Spanish Catholics. They established a small country of freethinkers and merchants, open to the world and tolerant of different opinions and ideas as long as the status quo between the provinces and the merchant families was left untouched. The division of many smaller parties is still a reflection of that basic situation.
In yesterday’s election, Wilders’ Freedom Party — despite heavy opposition from the leftist parties and the mainstream media — got 24 seats in the 150-seat Parliament. The VVD, the party Wilders left, became the biggest party, with 31 seats. The Christian Democrats, the solid centrist party that traditionally has been part of the governing coalition, was cut in half, from 42 to 21.
In the past, the biggest party in Parliament had about 40 to 50 seats, often representing a fourth or a third of the electorate. Now, the biggest party represents only one-fifth of the nation. Wilders’ new movement represents almost seventeen percent of the electorate. It is a clear indication of the many political agendas vying for votes, and the divisions between the voters.
The elections held on Wednesday show two parties with 10 seats, one with 5 seats, and two with 2 seats. The big five are now the VVD with 31 seats, the Social Democrats with 30, Wilders’ Freedom Party with 24, the Christian Democrats with 21, and the hard-core leftist Socialist Party with 15.
The tiny parties often play an important role in the creation of coalitions. Their influence can reach far beyond their number of seats when they are needed to form a majority coalition.
There is a small majority for the VVD, the Freedom Party, and the devastated Christian Democrats (they have 76 seats combined). On the other side, the leftist parties cannot form a majority coalition, unless the Christian Democrats participate — a repetition of the previous coalition that collapsed and resulted in these elections.
The problem for the three centrist-conservative parties is that they have different agendas. In the past, the Christian Democrats have shown disapproval of Wilders’ strong stance against Muslim immigration, and the new leadership (Prime Minister Balkenende stepped down as the CD leader) may be unwilling to participate in a governing coalition immediately after they have been butchered by the voters. In that case, the VVD, which will be given the task to form a government, has to investigate the possibilities of a coalition with the Social Democrats, who had been part of the previous coalition as well and were punished with the loss of 3 seats.
Geert Wilders’ party grew from 9 to 24 seats, an amazing feat in Dutch politics. Wilders can only be part of the ruling coalition if he can close a deal with the VVD and the Christian Democrats (the Social Democrats exclude any commitment with him). Wilders’ chances seem to be slim at the moment, unless he is willing to water down his program and start to sound and look like an average Dutch politician.
Since Fortuyn’s dramatic appearance on the political stage in Holland, a huge part of the electorate cut its loyalty to the existing parties and started looking for different voices. The “big three” of the mainstream parties — in the past the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats could count on at least 40 seats, while the VVD has always been a bit smaller — lost their appeal by not addressing the issues that resulted from the immigration from Muslim countries in a timely manner. Both blue and white collar workers don’t vote automatically anymore for the parties with which they have been traditionally allied. They are well-educated, well-informed, have access to the internet, and tend to vote as non-partisan consumers looking for the best deal in town.
There is talk now of an extra-parliamentarian government with independent ministers recruited from academia and the business world. Just don’t be surprised if all talks fail and new elections are needed.