This is the first Western country to hold elections since Britain voted to leave the European Union and Donald Trump rose to the US Presidency, so it is worth noting that here, too, a populist groundswell is making itself felt. In fact, the party that will emerge from the balloting on March 15 with the most support is likely to be the far-Right Party For Freedom (PVV) of Geert Wilders. If economic issues were the deciding factor, Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his Center-Right VVD party would have no difficulty romping to a victory. He inherited a country in trouble. In six years, with the help of some important reforms in alliance with the Center-Left Labor Party, he turned the malaise into an upswing. A slump in the housing market is now history. Business confidence seems quite solid. Unemployment, at 5.4% of the labor force, is at its lowest in half a decade. Official projections call for a real GDP expansion of 2.3% this year and on present indications they seem quite realistic. But the popular mood is not as sanguine as one might expect. Many fear that the (in Holland extensive) social benefits may not be sustained. There is concern about the consequences of the liberal immigration policy the government has been pursuing. And there is a widespread feeling that, following the EU’s enlargement into central and Eastern Europe, Dutch interests no longer count for much in Brussels.
The Labor Party, which has been governing more or less in the political Center and has been losing support on its Left, may well turn out to be hardest hit by changes in voter sentiment. Chances are the biggest winner in Holland next month is apt to be Mr. Wilders’ PVV, which is most radical in its anti-establishment and anti-immigrant position. Mr. Wilders has been proposing policies that would ban new asylum seekers, organize a referendum with the objective of taking The Netherlands out of the European Union (Nexit), close all mosques in the country and ban sales of the Koran. He was – it is worth noting in a country frequently acting as a bellwether for Northern Europe – convicted last December for inciting racial discrimination, but he was not punished by the court that heard his case. He quickly returned to surfing the wave of anti-establishment protests that have appeared in so many of the Western democracies.
Of course, there is no foretelling exactly what result the elections will bring. According to some of the most recent public opinion surveys, more than half of the electorate is still undecided. Moreover, there are 28 distinct parties competing for votes (nearly half of them in existence only since 2014), and the Dutch system of extreme proportional representation gives a seat in parliament to any party winning more than 0.67% of the ballots. This suggests that up to 14 parties may gain seats in the 150-member legislature, meaning that the coalition formation after the poll could be a mess. In reality, there is at this point no great risk that a Nexit referendum will be held, let alone proves successful. Both chambers of parliament would have to agree to amend the 2015 law that limits plebiscites to new legislation and treaties. And most parties have categorically ruled out joining a coalition with Mr. Wilders. Overall, though, it would be surprising if the elections did not show that this traditionally liberal country has moved noticeably to the Right, foreshadowing similar developments elsewhere in the EU.
Global Perspectives by Dr. Hans Belcsak