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.


D. Mario Nuti said...

A somewhat similar assessment, at least partly, was expressed already on the day of the elections (in Italian) at

On the similarity between Trump's and Wilders' anti-Islamic policies, see the delightful video spoof endorsement at

Lisa said...

Great Video, thanks,

Dutch Leader Claims Victory Over 'Wrong Kind of Populism' in Election
Is Rutte the Right Kind of Populism?

Emma said...

See also tomorrow's (sic) Economist:
Geert Wilders’s anti-immigration party does worse than expected in the Dutch election

Emma said...

And another source of more readings on the subject:
A Trump bump to reorder European politics? Not so fast.

G. van Heteren, former Dutch MP and chair European Movement NL said...

Agree to a large extent with the blog by Ellman. The 'center' has 'won', but in real policy terms the 'center' has also shifted to more cultural conservatism. The 'progressive' future oriented forces (Greens, Libdems) together hold 21% of the votes. Old labour lost and social democrats were diminished. It would be wiser to compare the results to the longer trends in the Netherlands. Because one element many commentators ignore in comparing 2017 to 2012 national elections, is that in 2012 PM Rutte's party VVD and Dutch Labour both won a lot of 'tactical votes'. Labour e.g. got votes then from Greens and D66 (libdems), people who now have 'returned' to their first party of choice. In any case, Dutch elections no reason for triumphalism nor for complacency, on the contrary: the social cultural disconnects are not diminished, but are temporarily covered over.

Jeff said...

A useful and intelligent analysis. Thanks for sharing it. I noticed that one significant party which Michael Ellman did not discuss was the Green Left party. This puzzled me a little, since they obtained the same number of seats as the Socialist Party, which he did discuss (14 for each). And unlike almost all the other parties, they greatly increased their vote since the last election. Perhaps one reason is that Ellman doesn't consider the Green Left a "populist" party (unlike the PVV and the Socialists). But the surge in support for the Green Left does seem to be one more exception to Ellman's general conclusion that "politics as normal, subject to a cultural/nationalist shift to the right, has won".

Of course, Ellman didn't necessarily have to cover everything about the election. But I can't help feeling curious about whether he had a reason for leaving out the Green Left

Michael Ellman said...

Jeff Weintraub is quite right that I did not say anything about Green Left and its success. It is absolutely true that Green Left did well and that its new young leader Jesse Klaver can feel pleased with these results. However, this achievement does not effect the political stability of the country.

Prior to the elections there was a possibility that the two anti-system parties, that of Wilders (PVV) and the Socialists (SP) would between them get so many seat as to make it impossible to form a stable coalition. This would have made the government unstable and might have forced new elections after a short period. However, this has not happened. The five obvious potential coalition partners (the party of Rutte, the Christian Democrats, Democrats 66, Green Left and the Christian Union), all more or less mainstream parties, have a sizeable majority. Although they disagree on some things, they do agree on a number of issues -Turkey should not be admitted to the EU, efforts should be made to reduce medical costs, more money should be allocated to the police and judicial system, the gap between secure and in insecure employment should be reduced, and the possibilities for firms to set debt interest against taxable profits should be reduced. These are all important issues, but they do not threaten the political stability of the country, nor are they of much interest to foreign observers. Even if either Green Left or the small Christian Union (a confessional party) drop out of the potential coalition, the remaining parties would still have a majority in the lower house of Parliament. Green Left has some radical ideas and is supported by many young people wanting change, and its participation in the coalition - if it happens - will no doubt bring about some changes, but it is not an anti-system party and on its own does not have enough seats to block formation of a stable coalition..

Of course, if one is interested in the implications for other EU countries of this election, then the progress of Green Left under Klaver could be interpreted, if one disregards the age difference, the general decline of Social Democracy in Europe, the continued minority status of Green Left, the policy difference between Green Left and the SPD, and the likely continuation of Rutte as prime minister, and concentrates on the electoral impact of a new media-savvy leader on the left side of the political spectrum, as an encouraging sign for the SPD under Schulz. However, the things one has to disregard to arrive at this interpretation are rather substantial.

Ned said...

The Labour Party defeat in the Dutch elections is likely to yield a positive spillover effect on Europe, namely the likely demise of the Eurogroup current President, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who displayed crass prejudice and lethal ignorance when he declared, in an interview to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, that “Southern European countries spend all their money on alcohol and women and then ask for help”. Good riddance.

Though of course neither the Eurogroup nor the Troika – unlike the Ecofin – have any constitutional basis for their operation, and should therefore be stripped of all of their predominant, prevaricating and destructive powers.

D. Mario Nuti said...

You are right about the unconstitutionality - from the viewpoint of the EU Treaties - of both Eurogroup and the Troika. And Dijsselbloem is unlikely to hold a ministerial post in the new government, now that his party has been cut from 25 to 5 seats.

But he has not apologised for his (deliberate?) "gaffe" and says that he has no intention to resign. Your optimism appears to be unjustified, I fear. At least he has revealed the depth of his prejudice, his cultural vulgarity and his utter unsuitability to hold a major European post. And the reason why socialdemocracy today has such a bad name and - thank god - is on a losing streak.

Pat said...

Wolfgang Schauble expressed support and appreciation for Dijsselbloem.

D. Mario Nuti said...

"Dio prima li fa poi li accoppia" goes the Italian proverb [God first makes them then pairs them].