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Anti-establishment centrists may well win the Dutch elections

Parties that defy conventional labels are shaking up Dutch politics. Are they unicorns – or a model for other countries?

- November 20, 2023
L-R: Dutch politicians Caroline van der Plas, Pieter Omtzigt, and Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius,(cc) Roel Wijnants via Flickr.

Dutch politics seem chaotic to outsiders. The parliament has 17 parties, including a party for the animals, a party for the elderly, a farmers’ party, and three radical right parties. Forming a government requires assembling a coalition of three or four parties – and the government usually breaks down before the end of its four-year term. The last government collapsed in July when the coalition parties failed to agree on immigration policies.

Despite all this, Dutch politics has been remarkably stable at the top. Since 2002, the Netherlands has had just two prime ministers: Jan-Peter Balkenende from the center-right Christian Democratic party (CDA) and Mark Rutte from the right-wing People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). Both politicians are hardly extravagant characters. Rutte, prime minister for the past 13 years in four different cabinets, has two nicknames: “teflon Mark,” for his ability to survive political scandals, and “Mr. Normal,” for his simple lifestyle, including biking to work.

That stability looks like a thing of the past. Mark Rutte is quitting (national) politics. In March, the Farmer Citizen Movement (BBB) became the largest party in the provincial elections and thereby the Dutch senate. While the BBB has lost momentum after the spring, another new political party, the New Social Contract (NSC), leads in some opinion polls a week before the Nov. 22 election, although it remains in a tight race with the VVD and the far right Party for Freedom (PVV), which is gaining momentum according to a recent poll. Many Dutch voters are still weighing their options from the veritable smorgasbord of political parties, leaving ample room for surprises. Even the new combination of the Greens and the Social Democrats (GL-PvdA) could still emerge as the largest party.

Should the VVD win, the Netherlands will likely get its first female prime minister and also the first prime minister with a Turkish background: Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius. Should the far right PVV win, Geert Wilders may be asked to form a government even as many parties have claimed that they do not want to govern with the PVV.

Yet most of the attention leading up to the election has focused on the emergence of the BBB and NSC, two parties that defy conventional labels. Their party platforms fit neither the ideological left nor the right, but their fierce anti-establishment rhetoric also doesn’t square well with how we typically think of centrist parties. Both parties have charismatic leaders who are reluctant to assume government leadership positions. When successful politicians lack clear ideologies and don’t seem to want power, political science is at a bit of a loss. 

So what are these new parties about? Can they be models for parties and candidates elsewhere, including the United States?

How the new parties came about

Caroline van der Plas founded the BBB in 2019 as a movement to support farmers who were affected by Dutch environmental policies. Her message and straight-shooting style resonated beyond the countryside, leading to a surprising electoral victory in the provincial elections.

Van der Plas uses some populist rhetoric but she is not a typical populist politician. After winning the provincial elections, she announced that she did not want to become prime minister should her party win the national election, proclaiming that she doesn’t want “to put on decent clothes and fly all over the world. I would have to wear heels and I can’t walk in them.” The party’s popularity in opinion polls has declined steadily since spring (see the chart) but the BBB will remain a force in the establishment of coalition governments.

Pieter Omtzigt founded the NSC in August 2023, largely appealing to the same set of unsettled voters who had flocked to the BBB during the provincial elections, although his message is more centrist and he has an establishment background. Omtzigt served in the Dutch parliament for the center-right CDA for nearly two decades. He had a reputation as a bit of an independent parliamentarian (by Dutch standards) and gained widespread recognition for his role in fighting the Rutte government over a child benefit scandal in which the tax authorities had wrongly accused more than 20,000 families of fraud. The scandal resulted in the collapse of the 2021 Rutte government, although “teflon Mark” won the ensuing elections and became prime minister of a new cabinet. 

Omtzigt left the Christian Democrats in 2021 and served as an independent parliamentarian for two years before founding the NSC. One would think that someone who is running so strongly on a good governance platform would want to actually run the government. Yet Omtzigt has remained ambiguous on whether he would be willing to serve as prime minister if the NSC emerges as the largest party on Nov. 22, saying that he would prefer to lead the party from parliament instead. 

Mixing centrist platforms with anti-establishment rhetoric

The two parties’ platforms have quite a bit in common. BBB and NSC both primarily appeal to voters who are attracted to the far right but who find the far right parties too extreme. The NSC is a bit more centrist and also attracts some voters who have supported left-wing voters in the past. Both parties want to restrict immigration and limit asylum seekers. Yet, unlike the far right, both parties shy away from Islamophobic or xenophobic language. Instead, they point to the housing crisis and the strain on social services as reasons to curb immigration. 

Both parties also find that environmental regulations have gone too far. Unlike the far right, neither party embraces climate skepticism. Instead, they claim that environmental policies unfairly hurt farmers and people who are less well off. And both parties emphasize crime but rarely use authoritarian rhetoric or attack the rule of law. Indeed, the NSC wants to create a new constitutional court to protect citizens’ rights. Both parties favor social welfare policies, but without appealing to socialist or leftist ideologies. 

These policy platforms are not radically different from what establishment center-right parties stand for. Indeed, VVD leader Yeşilgöz-Zegerius also campaigns on a platform that centers on curbing immigration.

Omtzigt’s anti-establishment rhetoric is less about the ideological flaws of the Dutch political elite than their lack of competence. Unlike the BBB, the NSC is not an outsider party, although it is sometimes portrayed that way The NSC’s candidate list is stacked with lawyers, technocrats, and experienced center-right parliamentarians. Omtzigt claims that he can serve the interests of Dutch citizens better by running the government better, making it all the more remarkable that he doesn’t actually seem to want to run the government.

The reluctance of Omtzigt and van der Plas to assume power might reassure Dutch voters that they aren’t budding autocrats. But this stance also leads to skepticism about whether these parties can successfully transition from opposition to government, and whether they can stick around. One possibility is that the NSC will essentially become a modern version of the CDA, which dominated Dutch politics for most of the 20th century but was decimated by secularization. This would essentially mean that the NSC would become a mainstream center-right party.

Are the Dutch elections a pilot for other countries?

Simon Kuper suggests in the Financial Times that the Dutch elections are piloting a “saner right.” The combination of charismatic but modest leadership, anti-establishment rhetoric, and popular right-of-center policy views may very well appeal elsewhere. 

In Germany, prolific left-wing politician Sahra Wagenknecht has formed a new party, the “Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance — for Reason and Fairness,” which seeks to chip away support from Germany’s far right party (AfD). Like the NSC, this new party has a charismatic leader and a policy platform that seeks to limit immigration, curb environmental regulations, and increase social welfare spending. Unlike Omtzigt, Wagenknecht also runs on a pro-Russia platform and she is more of an ideologue.

Omtzigt may well be somewhat of a unicorn: someone who can credibly claim to be anti-establishment but also centrist and, frankly, part of the establishment. Voters get the excitement of an anti-establishment politician with the reassurance that things are unlikely to get out of control. It remains to be seen how long this excitement will last.