Thursday, March 16, 2017

Michael Ellman on the Dutch Elections

The Dutch elections of 15 March have been widely interpreted as a “resounding defeat” for populism. This is very hard to reconcile with the government coalition losing 37 (8 out of 41 Rutte’s VVD, in spite of having moved towards Wilders’ agenda – “Be normal or Begone” - and 29 out of 38 Labour Party PvdA) i.e. almost half of its former 79 seats. Rutte will need new allies to form a government. Geert Wilders’ Party instead gained 5 seats and rose by one third to become the second party of the Netherlands. "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts" (Daniel Patrick Moynihan). So I asked Professor Michael J. Ellman, of Amsterdam University, for his assessment of the results. Here is his reply, which I found particularly enlightening, and which I have his permission to reproduce as a Guest Post on this Blog, with many thanks.

From Michael Ellman (16 March 2017):

It seems to me as follows, subject to the fact that currently we only have preliminary results and the final results may differ somewhat.

(1) The turnout rose significantly. This indicates that in addition to the people who normally vote, there were some additional people who strongly wanted to express their disapproval of the policies of the ruling coalition and others who strongly wanted to express their fears about Wilders.

(2) The coalition which has ruled since the last elections (in 2012) has done badly. They have gone down from a majority (79 in a 150 seat Parliament) to a minority of only 42. This indicates that the majority of the population rejects the policies of the last four years (fiscal orthodoxy/austerity).

(3) The main loser is the traditional Social Democratic party, the Labour Party or from its Dutch initials PvdA. This party has played a major role in Dutch politics since 1945 but fared dismally in these elections. I think the main reason is that it was the junior partner in the coalition and went along with fiscal orthodoxy/austerity which hit many of its traditional voters who turned elsewhere to express their dissatisfaction. For many years now it has been a 'New Labour' type of party and not a home for victims of globalisation. This has not pleased many of its traditional voters. It is also a culturally liberal party which also did not go down well with many of its traditional voters.

(4) Prime Minister Rutte can feel pleased with himself. Although the coalition which he led did very badly, his own party did not do too badly, losing only 1/5 of its voters and becoming by far the biggest party (at the last election it was only just ahead of the Social Democratic party). In addition, many of the votes he lost went to the Christian Democrats who are ideologically close to his party. Furthermore, Rutte's party did substantially better than the party of Wilders. As a result, Rutte's party will play a dominant part in the negotiations to form a new coalition.

(5) The mainstream parties won 2/3 (102) of the seats. This indicates that Dutch politics and society are quite stable. The coalition negotiations may well take some time (this is quite normal) but the resulting government will be a mainstream one.

(6) The election was largely fought on cultural/identity issues. Traditional economic issues played a lesser role. Dutch national identity, the role in the Netherlands of ethnic minorities, migration, and the role of the Netherlands in the EU were the main topics. (Of course migration also has an economic aspect.) The resulting Government will be very sceptical about plans to increase EU integration or expand its membership (in 2 referenda in the past, on the proposed EU constitution and on the Ukrainian trade agreement, majorities rejected the EU-preferred policy.) This means, inter alia, that the Netherlands will be hostile to plans for an EMU bank union or a transfer union. One of the 6 founder members of the EU is now opposed to deeper integration.

(7) In order to win and beat Wilders, Rutte took over some of his main themes. The need for immigrants and their descendants, if they want to be welcome, to assimilate, abandon some of their customs and accept Dutch ones, was strongly emphasised by Rutte. Also the stand he took against Turkish ministers holding open-air election rallies in the Netherlands was popular and probably won him votes.

(8) Although Wilders can be pleased that some of his themes have entered the mainstream and are repeated by the Prime Minister, he must be dissatisfied with the result. It is true that his number of seats has increased by a third. However, whereas at one time it was thought that his party might emerge as the largest one, it remains a long way (20 to 33) behind Rutte's party. Hence Wilders has not the slightest chance of entering the Government and becoming a minister.

(9) The other populist party (which gets less publicity outside the Netherlands) is the Socialist Party. This is a traditional leftist party in favour of more public expenditures, higher wages, lower rents, higher taxes on the rich and on companies etc. It seems that it will fall from 15 seats to 14.

(10) The result of the relatively poor showing of the 2 anti-system parties is that politics as normal, subject to a cultural/nationalist shift to the right, has won. For 'Brussels' that might be reassuring, but the lack of support for further EU integration and expansion, and the general acceptance of a more nationalist stance will not seem so positive.

(11) What policies the new coalition will agree on is highly uncertain at the moment (in the Netherlands the parties forming a coalition have to agree on policies, set out in a detailed written Coalition Agreement, before the new Government is formed and takes office - in the meantime the old ministers remain in office but are expected not to take any radical measures). To what extent the popular rejection of austerity and concern for national identity will influence future policy remains to be seen.