Last month, the Dutch coalition government collapsed on the issue of the involvement of Dutch troops in Uruzgan. The Dutch parliament had earlier voted for the troops to be brought home by August, a policy supported by the Labour party, the second party in the coalition. The dominant Christian Democrats disagreed, and wished to accede to a US and Nato demand for a further extension of their troops’ engagement. The breach between the governing parties was unbridgeable, and the coalition broke up. This was the first Nato government to collapse over Afghanistan, and one of very few governments to have collapsed over a foreign policy dispute.
New elections have been called for 9 June. The local elections this week offered a strong foretaste of the likely results. Labour lost support, as did the Christian Democrats. The populist left Socialist party – a stronger and more successful version of Germany’s Left party – did badly, and has since lost its new leader, Agnes Kant, but the Green left did well. The Conservative Liberals, the VVD, picked up some seats, but gained relatively less than the more liberal Liberals, the Democrats 66, the party long favoured by the chattering classes and a traditional refuge for floating voters. All well and good: the Dutch system has become extremely fragmented in recent years, and polls now predict that no single party is likely to emerge in June with much more than 20 per cent of the vote.
But the one great uncertainty is what will happen to the Freedom Party (PVV), led by the blonded Geert Wilders, and this is where the entrails of the local elections have been studied most keenly. Wilders is the latest in a short line of rightwing political entrepreneurs who have been trying to build a position in Dutch politics in the last ten years, and whose impact so far has been to throw traditional Dutch political culture into disarray. The story began with Pim Fortuyn, who was assassinated by an animal rights activist shortly before his debut election in 2002. His party fell apart soon afterwards, and though it is now gone, it is not forgotten. The second was Rita Verdonk, who left the VVD in high dudgeon when she failed to win the party leadership, and is now effectively forgotten even if not yet gone. The third is Wilders. The new PVV is distinctively anti-Islam, but tempers its persistent anti-immigrant rhetoric with an occasional reference to policies aimed at protecting pensioners or curbing the privileges of the political elite. This is an increasingly common package of appeals in northern Europe. At the last election, the PVV won 9 of the 150 seats in the Dutch parliament. This time around, it is expected to triple that figure and become one of the biggest parties in the country.
Wilders runs the party with iron discipline. Its elite is entirely under his control, which makes it less likely he will fall foul of the sort of personality clashes that did so much to undermine both Fortuyn’s successors and Verdonk. The PVV has no ordinary members – this is the first party in the Netherlands that one can’t actually join – which helps Wilders maintain unchallenged leadership control. And it doesn’t take risks. In the local elections, the PVV competed in only two places: in Almere, a new city, recently built on a recovered polder near Amsterdam, which is now home to some 200,000 inhabitants; and the Hague. In Almere, the party topped the poll, winning close to 25 per cent of the vote. In the Hague, they came a close second to Labour. In neither city, had the party previously competed. ‘This is a fantastic day for the party,’ said Wilders.
The impact of the PVV appeal is spreading much more widely than even its new vote indicates. On Monday last, shortly before polling day, the leaders of the Labour and VVD party lists in the Hague debated their policies on television. The main issue was how to balance the city budget: the VVD claimed that it had a variety of concrete proposals, in contrast to Labour’s generalities and equivocations. One of these proposals concerned cuts in social assistance programmes. Among the many social assistance claimants in the Hague, according to the VVD leader – a young man, bespectacled, prosperous and intelligent-looking – are some 1500 who don’t speak Dutch. Our policy is simple, he said. We stop payments to these people. If you want social assistance in the Hague, you must speak Dutch. No Dutch, no social assistance.
Non-Dutch speakers in need of social assistance are likely to be elderly, badly educated and socially marginalised. They are also, of course, more likely to be non-Western immigrants, and if they don’t speak Dutch now, are unlikely ever to learn it. So what will happen to them? Where is the traditional Dutch generosity here? Where is the traditional Dutch tolerance, or even the traditional Dutch dignity? Will even more of this disappear down the polder drains on 9 June?