The Shift Toward Rightwing Populism in the Centrist Electorate of the Netherlands

The recent Dutch election sent out political shockwaves that extend well beyond the Netherlands, as noted in media outlets both left and right. A headline in right-leaning Spiked Online reads “The Humiliation of the Dutch Establishment: The Victory of Geert Wilders Shows Voters are Desperate to Hit Back Against the Elites,” while one in left-leaning Daily Beast claims that “Shock Election Triumph Crowns Geert Wilders as the World’s ‘King of Islamophobia: Far-right Populist … Scores Huge Victory in Dutch Election, Despite Previous Conviction and Bans.” Although such interpretations are understandable, they obscure the complexities of Dutch electoral politics and exaggerate the trends that this election revealed. Although Wilders’ right-populist Party for Freedom (PVV) did better than any other party, it still took less than a quarter of the votes cast, giving it only 37 out of 150 seats in the House Representatives. It will be a challenge, and perhaps an impossibility, for Wilders to cobble together a coalition large enough for him to form a government and become prime minister. If that does happen, his Party for Freedom will probably have to moderate if not abandon its most controversial positions. (It is his party, moreover, as he is the sole member.)

With strictly proportional representation and a low threshold – 0.67% ­– for parliamentary representation, the Netherlands has a complex political environment with many competitive parties. In 2023, 15 received enough votes for representation in the House of Representative, down from 17 in 2021. As a result, multi-party coalitions are generally needed to gain a parliamentary majority of 76 seats.

 To get a better sense of the election results, I have arranged the main Dutch parties along a conventional one-dimensional political spectrum, extending from the far-left to the far-right (see below). In doing so, I relied on Wikipedia to categorize their political positions along this axis, as it uses relatively consistent criteria for doing so. I am, however, skeptical of the one-dimensional “left-right” spectrum, omnipresent though it is. It has never adequately captured the essence of political viewpoint diversity, and its misalignment with actual conditions is currently intensifying. What is needed instead is multi-dimensional model of political space. But for time being, I reluctantly retain the one-dimensional scheme. But I do deviate from the norm by dividing Dutch parties into three main categories: left, right, and center. Given the strength, albeit diminishing, of the Dutch political center, this scheme is more fitting than a simple “left/right” bifurcation. In the system used in the diagram below, a party that is deemed either “center-right” or “center-left” by Wikipedia is slotted into the broad political “center,” while one described as “center-left to left-wing” is classified instead as “leftwing,” just as one deemed “center-right to right-wing” is classified as “rightwing.” Several of Wikipedia’s designations, however, are highly debatable, and as a result the categorization scheme found below should be regarded as merely suggestive.

As the diagram shows, although the center parties suffered a sharp rebuke in the 2023 election, together they remain the Netherlands’ largest block by a considerable margin. Overall, the Dutch electorate skews slightly to the right of center, at least according to the classification scheme used here. In the 2023 general election, the political center’s loss resulted in major gains for the populist right. Rightwing populist voters moved toward Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV), with two smaller parties of the same ilk losing support. One of these, JA21, portrays itself a “proper” rightwing party, less radical than Wilders’ PVV (although Wikipedia slots them into the same political space). The other, FvD, is usually regard as more radical than PVV, as well as more favorable to Vladimir Putin. The more centrist but still right-populist BBB, or Farmer-Citizen Movement, also registered major gains. It did not, however, perform nearly as well as it had in the Dutch provincial elections earlier in this year, when it took 19 percent of the vote nationwide and gained the largest number of seats in all 12 Dutch provinces. The BBB’s agrarian focus, along with the lack of ambition for national leadership by its leader, Caroline van der Plas, probably contributed to its loss of votes in the general election.

Of the three Dutch electoral segments outlined here, the left is clearly the weakest. It now receives much less support than it had in the late twentieth century, when the leader of the Labour Party (PvdA) Wim Kok served as Prime Minister (1994 to 2002). After poor showings in 2021, the two main “center-left/leftwing” parties, Labour and the Greens, combined to form PvdA–GroenLinks (GreenLeft-Labour). As can be seen, this joint party did relatively well in 2023, winning eight seats more than its two constituent parties had won in 2021. Its gains, however, apparently came at the cost of the Netherland’s more leftwing parties, which collectively lost eight seats. The party furthest to the left, the Marxian, identity-focused BIJ1, did not receive enough votes to retain parliamentary representation.

Despite its solid showing overall, the broad Dutch political center experienced major losses and profound upheaval in this election cycle. Its three main parties, center-right VVD (Party for Freedom and Democracy), center/center-right CDA (Christian Democratic Appeal), and center-center D66 (Democrats 66) saw a staggering collective loss of 35 seats. These three parties, along with the smaller Christian Union (which also lost seats), had formed the Netherland’s governing coalition. D66, which supports European Federalism, lost more than half of its seats, while CDA lost two-thirds. As a result, Christian Democratic Appeal is a now a shadow of its former self; as recently as 2006 it was the Netherlands’ top party, winning 41 seats and taking 26.5 percent of the vote that year. Many of the defections from the parties of the governing coalition went to a new center party, NSC (New Social Contract). Led by Ph.D economist Pieter Omtzigt, NCS grew out of the Eurosceptic wing of Christian Democratic Appeal. In the 2023 election, Omtzigt positioned himself as a maverick centrist, “conservative on immigration and climate change but leftist on reducing poverty and improving healthcare.” Significantly, the centrism of the larger Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) of out-going Prime Minister Mark Rutte is of the opposite order, leaning left on immigration and climate change while advocating small government, laissez-faire economics, and tax reductions. The centrism of the Turkish-oriented DENK party skews in yet another direction, to the left on immigration and multiculturalism, but increasingly to the right on social issues.

European integration, immigration, and climate-change mitigation were key issues in the 2023 Dutch election. Skepticism about all three figured prominently in the losses experienced by the center/center-right governing coalition, with some of its voters moving to the hard right and others to a less-internationalist version of Dutch centrism. Intriguingly, the story on the left was quite different, with its more Eurosceptical and anti-globalist parties losing seats to the more centrist and EU-oriented GreenLeft-Labour party.

Overall, the Dutch electorate clearly shifted to a more nationalistic and climate-skeptical position. Similar shifts have occurred recently in several other countries, although Poland notably bucked the trend, as was explored in previous GeoCurrents posts. This tendency challenges the idea that a single one-dimensional spectrum adequately captures the full array of political thought. It seems likely that we will continue to see the growth of parties and movements, like the Netherlands’ New Social Contract, that lean economically to the left but are more conservative on environmental, social, and immigration issues. Conversely, movements advocating the opposite mix, like the Teal Independents of Australia, could also gain clout, as could other alternative parties with their own eclectic policy ideas. Overall, the populist/establishment divide will probably intensify. As a result, democratic countries could see electoral destabilization with rapid swings in the fortunes of established political parties. Such a situation may be perilous, but it is also extremely interesting. Stay tuned.