On November 22, the Netherlands elected a new Parliament. The elections saw a major change in the Dutch political landscape. In terms of seats change, the election was the most volatile election since the introduction of the proportional electoral system: 54 seats changed hands. The Party for Freedom (PVV), which is the main populist radical right party, became the largest party by winning 37 seats. While the polls indicated a shift to the PVV in the last week of the campaign, this landslide victory was unexpected. The second force (25 seats) in the election was a coalition of the GreenLeft and Labour Party (GL-PvdA), the most intense form of left-wing cooperation in years. The conservative-liberal Liberal Party (VVD) lost ten seats but still came in third (24 seats). The election also saw the breakthrough of new party, New Social Contract (NSC), led by former Christian democrat Pieter Omtzigt, which won twenty seats – the second-best result of new party since the introduction of universal suffrage.
While the Dutch party system still is characterised by its many parties, the political landscape became less fragmented as voters cast their votes for four parties (PVV, GL-PvdA, VVD and NSC).
In this contribution, we will first sketch the key moments leading up to the election, prior to analysing the election results. We will end with a brief look into the possible coalitions that may form.
How a photograph of secret formation memo set the stage
To understand this election, we need to go back to fall of the cabinet in 2021. In January that year, the Rutte III cabinet stepped down a couple of months before the already scheduled elections over the childcare benefit scandal. A parliamentary inquiry committee concluded that the government had overzealously prosecuted cases of minor fraud by parents using government benefits to pay for child care. The government had specifically targeted people with a dual nationality, many of whom were forced into financial ruin.
One of the key players in unveiling the scandal was Pieter Omtzigt, an MP of the coalition party Christian-Democratic Appeal (CDA). In his role as a coalition MP, he actively made use of his parliamentary tools to probe into the scandal, despite opposition from government ministers, the coalition, and his own party. After the 2021 election, then PM Mark Rutte proposed ‘relocating’ Omtzigt to a position outside parliament – a notion that was leaked via a photograph of parliamentary scout Kajsa Ollongren’s meeting notes. This leaked memo, coupled with the prolonged coalition negotiations (the longest in history), exacerbated a decline in political trust, magnified by the childcare benefit scandal and other controversies.
Following the extensive discussions, the same four parties from the previous administration (CDA, conservative-liberal VVD, social-liberal D66, and Christian-social Christian Union or CU) eventually formed a new government. The coalition grappled notably with two pivotal issues: nitrogen policies and migration.
In 2019, nitrogen emerged as an unresolved and persistently controversial issue in Dutch politics. The Netherlands has a substantial livestock sector, generating considerable nitrogen pollution that directly affects the quality of nature. In order to comply with EU environmental regulations, the government had to cut nitrogen emissions. The parties in the coalition disagreed over how this was to be achieved, including compulsory buyouts of farms. Continuous disagreements persisted among the coalition parties and agricultural interest groups, which led to large scale-farmers’ protests in the summer of 2022. In the run-up to the 2023 provincial elections, the CDA, which had traditionally championed farmers’ interests in the Netherlands, was facing a decline in support as the newly formed agrarian populist Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) gained traction. Sensing this shift, the CDA expressed a desired to renegotiate the agricultural paragraph of the coalition agreement. This helped put agricultural issues at the centre stage in the said elections, which led to a landslide victory for the BBB.
Meanwhile, the VVD pushed for a revision of the migration paragraph of the coalition agreement. In previous years, VVD-led governments had initiated budget cuts for housing asylum seekers, which resulted in serious accommodation shortages. To address these shortages, the VVD proposed a migration bill that would allow the central government to force municipalities to house asylum seekers. Yet, internal divisions within the VVD prompted its parliamentary group to advocate for a broader package to curb immigration. Disagreements, particularly regarding limiting refugee family reunification, caused a deadlock between the right-wing VVD and center-left CU. This impasse led Prime Minister Mark Rutte to resign and announce his decision not to seek re-election after 13 years. This set the stage for the 2023 elections.
The Liberal Party
Rutte was succeeded by Dilan Yesilgöz, who then served as Minister of Justice and Safety. Yesilgöz’s candidacy was exceptional because she could potentially become not only the first female prime minister but also the first prime minister in the Netherlands with a refugee background. The VVD opted not to emphasise this aspect but instead tacked to the right by campaigning around the issue of migration, aiming to reduce overall immigration to the Netherlands, including refugees, labour migration and study migration. Crucially, Yesilgöz stated early on in the campaign that she would be open to governing with the PVV. This marked a clear break with Rutte, who had consistently barred the PVV from coalition involvement since 2012. This strategy ultimately helped till the field for the PVV; 15 percent of VVD-voters in 2021 shifted their support to the PVV in 2023, affirming the long-standing notion that prefer the ‘original’ over the ‘copy’ when it comes to issue ownership over migration.
The Party for Freedom
The largest party by a significant margin was Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom. Over the last two decades, the PVV has become a permanent fixture in Dutch politics, with Wilders being the longest-serving MP in parliament. The PVV can be described as an archetypical populist radical right party, characterised by nativism (a xenophobic form of nationalism), authoritarianism (advocating ‘law and order’) and populism (people-centric and anti-elitist). Historically, its nativism primarily targeted Islam, which the party sees as antithetical to secular (Western) values. On economic issues, the PVV has embraced welfare chauvinism, notably by focussing strongly on reducing the cost of living for the native Dutch people in lower and middle-income brackets, along with advocating for improved healthcare for Dutch seniors.
The PVV surged somewhat unexpectedly in the last week of the campaign. Winning just 5 percent in the provincial elections and polling below 15 percent a week before the recent elections, they eventually soared to 24 percent in the final count. Several underlying factors contributed to PVV’s success. First, a segment of the Dutch electorate expressed political dissatisfaction following major scandals and the tumultuous coalition negotiations of 2021. Second, a substantive portion of the Dutch electorate supports migration restrictions while leaning economically more towards the left. This convergence of issues proved advantageous for the PVV, striking a sweet spot in the Dutch electoral market that resonated with these underlying sentiments. Third, the PVV’s landslide victory must be attributed to the normalisation of far-right discourses, which could be observed both in the media and within center-right parties over the past decades.
Against this backdrop, there are also specific circumstances that played in the hands of the PVV in the run-up to this election: first and foremost, as mentioned earlier, the new leader of the VVD, Dylan Yesilgöz, opened the door to collaborating with the PVV. This made it more attractive for voters to support Wilders, because influence on government policy was finally in sight; in other words, voting the PVV was no longer just a ‘protest vote’ against the political system. At the same time, this move contributed to legitimising the PVV, notably by tampering its extremist image. Second, by letting the government fall on migration, the VVD had put migration front and centre in the campaign, but since the PVV is seen as ‘issue owner’ on migration, the party ultimately benefited from this move. Third, as election day approached, other parties appealing to dissatisfied right-wing voters, like BBB and NSC, made tactical missteps. Meanwhile, Wilders capitalised on his extensive experience, employing a shrewd strategy by tempering his radical image and toning down rhetoric. This calculated move appealed to right-wing voters focused on migration as a primary concern.
The joint list of GL-PvdA
After the fall of the cabinet, plans about a left-wing cooperation (which had intensified in the run-up to the 2023 regional elections) regained momentum. The GreenLeft and Labour parties decided to run with a joint list, a joint manifesto and a common lead candidate for their campaign. This was the most intense form of progressive cooperation since the 1970s. The joint manifesto focused on both the need to take far-reaching measures to mitigate the climate crisis while also highlighting the necessity of reforming the Dutch public sector. The new alliance selected Frans Timmermans, a seasoned leader with extensive experience, including nine years as Vice-President of the European Commission focusing on the Green New Deal and the Rule of Law, along with prior roles as Foreign Affairs Minister and an eleven-year tenure in Parliament. Given his national and international expertise, the aim was for Timmermans to potentially succeed Mark Rutte as prime minister. However, critics voiced concerns about Timmermans having lost touch with the Dutch voters after nearly a decade in Brussels. Securing 16 percent of the vote marked a 5 percent increase from the parties’ separate runs in the prior elections; overall, however, the joint campaign underperformed. Timmermans, instead of emphasizing his eco-social agenda, was perceived as preoccupied with forming the next government. The election outcome fell notably short of the parties’ expectations.
The New Social Contract
The fourth party in the elections was the newcomer party NSC, founded just two months before the elections by Pieter Omtzigt following an internal conflict within the CDA. Just like the CDA, NSC is based on Christian-democratic principles that prioritise the significance of community over both the state and the market.
The NSC focused on three core issues: reforming government culture to prevent future scandals, addressing the cost of living crisis, and curbing immigration. While the party was specific on curbing migration (by proposing a maximum net migrant level of 50,000 individuals), the party remained vague on various other issues. For instance, the party favoured targeted spending on poverty reduction without advocating an increase on minimum wage. Crucially, Omtzigt was ambiguous on whether or not he would be willing to become prime minister in case his party were to win the election; it was only a few days before the elections that he finally caved in to pressures by reluctantly stating that he would be up for the job – but only in a “cabinet of experts”.
Omtzigt is widely respected and trusted, notably for prioritizing the uncovering of the childcare benefit scandal above political considerations, party ties, or personal ambitions. Yet, his lack of charisma, decisiveness, and clear communication style became apparent in the final weeks of the campaign, causing the party to underperform. The NSC ultimately won twenty seats – fewer than anticipated in the months and weeks prior to the election.
Bloodbath on the left
For the other parties of the left -broadly defined- the elections were a bloodbath. Small left-wing parties were already apprehensive about losing voters due to strategic ballots for Timmermans. However, the harsh reality exceeded their concerns: together, progressive and left-leaning parties lost 18 seats. They now hold a mere 50 out of the 150 seats in parliament.
The largest of these was D66. This social-liberal party had come second in the 2021 elections with 15% of the vote. Governing in a centre-right coalition in the last six years took its toll on the party. The party only retained a third of the vote it had gotten in 2021. Of the people who voted for this party in 2021 more people voted for the GreenLeft-Labour coalition than for D66.
The left-wing Socialist Party lost half of its votes. Among its working-class electorate is more conservative on migration but left-wing on economic issues, the NSC had a more credible social profile and the PVV was mpre credible on migration.
The deep-green Party for the Animals lost almost half of its votes due to an internal conflict that exploded in the end of the summer.
The pan-European party Volt lost one third of their votes, in particular to GL-PvdA.
The Christian-social party ChristianUnion, tended to rely on a solid base of protestant voters. For the first time in more than twelve years, the party lost seats, in particular seeing competition from NSC.
The only smaller party of the left to win votes was DENK, the party of, by and for bicultural citizens. This party that does particularly well among Dutch-Turkish and Dutch-Moroccan voters gained only +0.3%. It expected to gain, given the politicization of the migration.
Competition on the right
The other parties of the right declined under pressure from the PVV and NSC. They had 30 seats in 2021 but are left with 19 seats now.
The agrarian-populist Farmer-Citizen-Movement, which was the first party nationally in the provincial elections in the Spring with 20% of the vote, got less than 5%. Internal and external circumstances led to its demise. On the one hand the entry of NSC in the race, which also mobilizes dissatisfied voters led to its decline, but also the focus of the campaign on migration, where in the Spring, its issue agriculture had taken centre stage, put the party in a difficult position. On the other hand, the unfortuitous choice of a former CDA junior minister as candidate prime minister did not bolster the support for this party.
The Christian-Democratic Appeal lost one two thirds of its support. Of the people who voted for this party in 2021 more people voted for the NSC coalition than for CDA.
Forum for Democracy started out as right-wing populist party but has embraced more extremist rhetoric and conspiracy thinking in the last years. The party declined from 5% to 2% under pressure from the PVV.
The moderate split from FVD, JA21 received 2% of the votes in 2021, but now were left less than 1%. This reflects internal conflicts inside the party.
A bastion of stability in the Netherlands, the conservative protestant SGP kept its three seats in parliament in a landscape of major change.
Given how complex the Dutch political landscape is, the coalition formation may take very long. The most likely option is a right-wing coalition, including PVV, VVD and NSC. Together, these parties hold 81 out of 150 seats. One main hurdle to such a construction is that the VVD has already signalled that it only sees a role for itself as a support party of a minority government. Another problem is that Omtzigt had vetoed cooperation with the PVV before the elections, arguing that a large number of its proposals go against the constitution and the rule of law. On election night, Geert Wilders immediately dropped some of the more unconstitutional (anti-Islam) demands of his manifesto, by instead signalling that curbing migration, dealing with the cost of living crisis and investing in healthcare would be his key priorities. The NSC might join such a coalition if Wilders can persuade Omtzigt that he would genuinely commit to constitutional principles. On substantial issues (limiting migration and dealing with the cost of living crisis) the parties seem to agree. If NSC were to oppose to governing with the PVV, one could imagine a minority government (either PVV-VVD or VVD-NSC). The NSC in particular has indicated a desire for minority government as a way to force more open relations between parliament and the cabinet.
Another potential pitfall to a PVV-VVD-NSC coalition is the Senate, where these parties only hold 14 out of 75 seats. Including the BBB (currently the biggest party in the Senate with 16 seats) may be a viable solution, but even then, the coalition would require an additional eight seats to have a majority. The parties situated to the right of this potential coalition—JA21, FVD, and SGP—contribute only seven more seats. This scenario could potentially grant the centre-right CDA some leverage in the coalition’s success.
A significant challenge arises from the PVV’s limited pool of qualified politicians capable of serving as ministers. A party without members, the PVV has not dedicated much (if any) effort into nurturing and training promising candidates. Despite having several experienced MPs, their candidate list comprises only 45 names. Should the party enter the government, this leaves only eight candidates to fill in as MPs. If the PVV-list is exhausted, parliamentary seats would remain vacant. Whether the PVV has a support network outside the party capable of assuming ministerial roles without prior parliamentary experience remains to be seen.
A second (less likely) coalition would bypass the PVV to include GL-PvdA, VVD, NSC and D66. Together, they hold 78 out of 150 seats. This coalition is programmatically more difficult to realise; while these parties may agree on fundamental matters such as Dutch membership of the EU and freedom of religion, they disagree on economic matters, the environment and migration. Moreover, this coalition only has 29 seats in the Senate. It would need support of either the left in the Senate (CU, Volt, PvdD and SP offering eleven seats) or the BBB. Before the elections, GL-PvdA indicated that they would only govern with another progressive party. D66 would be the most logical option on paper. However, given the fall of the cabinet, it is unlikely that D66 would re-enter government the VVD.
Such a coalition would sideline the PVV, which not only emerged as the largest victor in these elections by a large margin. This is not the first time that the largest parties in parliament would not be in the government (this also happened in 1971, 1977 and 1982). Yet, this party has consistently propagated a narrative of being sidelined and disregarded by ‘the establishment’. This could potentially fan the flames of radical right-wing populism even further.
Photo source: https://edition.cnn.com/2023/11/22/europe/netherlands-election-intl/index.html