The Dutch election was the latest chapter in the death of European social democracy

17 Mar 2017

Heading into the recent general election in the Netherlands, all the talk surrounded Geert Wilders. The firebrand right-wing populist had dominated the news cycle not just in his native country but across the world. For some, he was the latest in a long line of anti-establishment saviours attempting to shake up a system that was no longer fit for purpose. For others, he represented a further threat to liberal democracy, the sibling of Brexit and Donald Trump attempting to weaken social liberalism and multiculturalism.


In the end, the apocalyptic narrative peddled by overexcited political commentators proved to be false. Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) made gains of just 3%, significantly lower than the number many had predicted. Whilst they managed to become the Netherlands’ second largest party thanks to the 20 seats they now occupy in the House of Representatives, they fell short of the 15.4% share of the vote they gained in 2010. When viewed alongside the numbers they managed to achieve in the pre-election opinion polls, PVV’s underwhelming performance can only be viewed as a disappointment.


PVV’s gains also failed to eclipse those of GroenLinks (GL) and Democrats 66 (D66) - the night’s two biggest winners. Socially liberal and pro-European, the left-leaning parties enjoyed vote increases of 4% and 6.6%, respectively, making the former the joint-third largest party in the House alongside the centre-right Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA).


The impressive showing from GL and D66 offered a compelling counter-narrative to the one that had been peddled in the build-up to the election. Whilst almost all discussions centred on PVV’s chances of becoming the Netherlands’ biggest party, little attention was being paid to the left of the political spectrum. In the end, that was where the night’s most interesting developments arguably took place.


Despite losing over 5% of the vote, the 33 seats held on to by the ruling People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) means that whatever the makeup of the next coalition, prime minister Mark Rutte will lead it once again. Which parties he will go into government with remain unknown, but one thing is for certain, and that is that the Labour Party (PvdA), once a dominant force in Dutch politics and a coalition partner for the past five years, are unlikely to play any sizeable role after being handed a demoralising defeat at the ballot box.


With their representation in the House dropping from 38 to just nine seats, the 19.1% of the vote shed by PvdA constitutes the most dramatic drop since a similarly chastening defeat in 2002. As was the case then, PvdA’s heavy loss can be seen as a reaction from voters to the party’s decision to form a “purple” coalition with VVD, but it also represents the latest in a long line of examples of the perilous position in which European social democracy currently finds itself.


Whereas the PvdA struggled in the 2002 election to counter the populist rhetoric being espoused by Pim Fortuyn – arguably Wilders’ predecessor on the radical right of the Dutch political landscape – this time their woes were increased by a rejuvenated group of socially liberal parties. This resulted in them being attacked from both flanks and unable to respond with a coherent and attractive set of policies.


The increasingly fragmented nature of Dutch politics has continued to cause problems for PvdA since 2002, resulting in them operating as junior coalition partners on only two occasions.


Prior to 2002, continually strong performances from PvdA saw them regularly operate as either the governing party or main opposition. Their place in three successive coalitions was established for 13 consecutive years between 1989 and 2002. However, the 2002 election marked a turning point for Dutch social democracy, and PvdA’s inability to counter attacks from both the left and right has left their status as one of the Netherlands’ two main parties in deep peril.


Their struggles echo those suffered by similar social democratic parties across Europe. Highlighted by PASOK’s historic defeat in the 2012 Greek election – one that saw them punished by Syriza for its decision to prop up a New Democracy-led “national government” – centre-left parties are struggling to find relevance in an increasingly fragmented and volatile world. The trend can also be seen in France, where the Socialist Party are in danger of finishing as low as fourth place in the upcoming presidential election, and Spain, where the Socialist Workers’ Party have seen their share of the vote drop by over 20% in just eight years. Only in Germany are the centre-left holding firm.


For PvdA, their watered down, centre-left narrative no longer resonates with voters. With proportional representation offering the electorate the choice of several parties to choose from, those on the left no longer see in PvdA a serious, electorally competitive option. Instead, their support base has collapsed, with socially liberal, middle-class voters moving to the likes of GL and D66, and predominately white, working-class voters finding a new home in PVV. PvdA’s fragmented nature was notably visible in both Rotterdam and Den Haag, where Denk, a minority party catering for Turkish voters, are now bigger than the traditional party from which they emerged little over two years ago.


Here in the United Kingdom, the Labour Party are experiencing a crisis of their own, with opinion polls showing they currently sit 17 points behind the Conservatives. But, unlike their friends on the continent, the two-party nature of British politics has helped to slow the party’s decline. A lack of credible options (particularly after the collapse of the Liberal Democrats at the last election) means that disenchanted left-leaning voters have few places to turn.


Labour’s biggest threat comes from the right, with the Conservatives pitching for white, working-class and Brexit-backing voters as they attempt to weaken both Labour and UKIP. But, under first-past-the-post, they have so far managed to hold on to enough sections of their traditional base to avoid total collapse.


Central European social democratic parties haven’t been so lucky. PvdA’s dismal defeat shows the grim future facing the centre-left in multi-party systems. With PvdA set to spend the next parliamentary term away from the action on the backbenches, and the French Socialist Party likely to suffer a similar fate in the upcoming presidential and legislative elections, social democracy has collapsed into a deep hole from which it may never be able to escape.




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