The Progressive Post

Dutch elections 2021: no recovery of Social Democracy!

Emeritus Professor of Comparative Political Science at the VU University Amsterdam

All left-wing parties experience a dramatic loss of votes in the recent elections in the Netherlands. The Labour Party did not lose votes but remain at their all-time low. Short-term reasons explain in part the poor performance. But long-term factors explain why Social Democracy will remain in dire straits.

In 2012, when the country was in a deep recession, surprisingly, the Labour Party (PvdA) became the second largest party in parliament. Together with the (Conservative) Liberal party, the VVD, a coalition was formed. Fiscal cutbacks, austerity policies and welfare retrenchments were put in place, to cope with the economic crisis. In 2017, the party was ungraciously and severely ‘punished’ by the electorate for its turn to neo-liberalism and forfeiting the welfare state. This caused its worst electoral performance ever: down from 38 seats in parliament to only nine.

At the same time, its coalition partner, the VVD, did not lose much support and Mark Rutte remained prime minister. The PvdA, under the leadership of Lodewijk Asscher, did not join the new coalition. It hoped to regain its losses in opposition and by reviewing its mission as democratic socialist party. Alas, to no avail.

The Left’s electoral disaster

As a result, in the recent elections, there have been some changes, but only a few surprises. Yet, the saddest story concerns the Dutch Left: after the electoral disaster of the PvdA in 2017, the other two left-wing parties (Green Left, and the Socialist Party) lost dramatically in 2021: combined, these parties fell from 28 seats to 16 seats (minus 7.1 per cent of the vote). Together with PvdA, the combined Left now only holds 26 seats in the 150-seats parliament, which represent one out of six voters. For all three parties combined, it is a loss of 11 seats compared to the 2017 elections, while only 15 years back the Left accounted for 65 seats in parliament (43.5 per cent of the vote). What has happened in the meantime? What does it imply for the future of the Dutch Left? Let us first look at the specifics of the 2021 election.

The Lower House election

Due to the Covid-crisis, and for all parties, the electoral campaign was of course limited to social media, advertising, and televised debates. Yet, the left-wing parties rely on canvassing, gatherings and public events more than their rivals. Second, like the other parties in opposition (except for the populists: Geert Wilders’ PVV and Thierry Baudet’s FvD), the Left supported, albeit critically, the government in coping with the pandemic. Judging the polls, this boosted the support for the prime minister’s party, the liberal-conservative VVD. In fact, the coalition was supported by the public, even if a little less very recently. The pre-election polls predicted the results more or less correctly, apart for the two winners: D66 (plus four seats) and Forum for Democracy (plus six seats). Mark Rutte’s VVD gained three seats, as expected. In addition, four new parties entered parliament, which now counts 17 parties.

Finally, the turnout remained almost at the same level as before:  78.9 per cent, notwithstanding the restrictions and anxieties due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Electoral volatility has been 14.6 per cent, indicating that one out of seven voters switched party in this election. 

The fate of the left-wing parties

Although a loss for the Left was predicted, losing one third of their vote was not. My first impression is that a sizeable proportion of the left-wing voters chose to support the liberal-progressive D66 for strategic reasons (in view of the upcoming coalition formation), and because her (female) leader and Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation minister, Sigrid Kaag, did well in the televised debates, in particular when facing Geert Wilders, the leader of the largest populist party. The overall result of the election signifies: 

Firstly, with 17 parties in parliament, there has been a further increase of the number of parties in the Second Chamber, meaning further fragmentation and reducing the dominance of mainstream parties.

Secondly, a further strengthening of the radical-populist right, gaining altogether almost 20 per cent of the vote.

Thirdly, a further decline of the three parties of the Left in the Netherlands. During the run-up to the elections, each of these parties repeatedly suggested cooperating during campaigning as well as acting united in the coalition formation process. However, they continued to operate separately during the campaign as well as in parliament.

Fourthly, specific issues concerning pressing problems (like the climate crisis and post-Covid socioeconomic recovery) remained unheeded in the campaign. The focus was mainly on trusted ‘leadership’. Neither PvdA nor the other left-wing party leaders could stand out in this respect. 

Long-term explanations

Back in 2002, a landslide election occurred in the Netherlands. It was the result of the emergence of the right-wing populist Pim Fortuyn, who was murdered three days before election day. Fortuyn was a vehement critic of Wim Kok, the then PvdA prime minister. His new party won 17.5 per cent of the vote and 26 seats in parliament! 

In my view it was the beginning of right-wing party formation in the Netherlands that has continued until today. However, their success is not only due to their (extreme) right-wing populism, but also due to their socioeconomic positioning: defending pensions, health care, social security provisions. In short: they are stealing the traditional Labour Party’s issues, like social welfare and income equality, but remain opposed to immigration, the EU, Islam and to restricting the individual freedoms of the ordinary man.

In retrospect, the election of 2002 was the prelude of the demise of the Labour Party. Since then, PvdA lost its political course as well as ownership of issues concerning the welfare state, social securities and the labour market. The upswing between 2012 and 2017 while it was in government only meant that PvdA lost the support of its ‘traditional’ rank and file: PvdA was not trusted any more as their ‘natural’ protector. 

A final factor to consider is that Dutch society, like elsewhere, has changed in this century. The labour population is structured differently today and is more fragmented than ever. Another change is the emergence of social media, playing a many-sided role in terms of overall communication, alternative news, and organising political support across the (younger) population. At the same time new issues intensified for young and old cohorts, like identity politics, climate change, pensions, health care, education. 

The Dutch Labour Party has not been able to meet these new challenges by developing an up-to-date programme and appeal to a diversified following to counteract the populist rhetoric!

Short-term problems

Of course, other factors played their role in this election, contributing to the electoral decline of the Dutch left-wing parties. Firstly, obviously, the Covid-19 pandemic obscured other hot issues during the campaign. Rutte, was often on television and in the news, appearing as the leading ‘statesman’. Secondly, the PvdA had to switch its leadership only two months before the elections, as Lodewijk Asscher stepped down after a lethal report on social security fraud that had unjustly victimised 30,000 low-income people while he was minister of Social Affairs (2012-17). His successor, Lilianne Ploumen, had only eight weeks to campaign. Thirdly, 38 parties contested this election. Many of these parties were one-issue parties competing in various ways, also with the Left. Overall, the PvdA was in deplorable conditions during its campaign. However, it was also conducted with no credible, distinctive message that appealed to a potential or traditional following.

Modernise or die!

Structural reasons may well explain the lack of recovering powers. Obviously, the run-up to the election and multiple competition during the campaign has certainly affected the chances for the Left as a whole, and the PvdA in particular. Nevertheless, as I wrote in 2017: “the promise of ‘democratic socialism’, albeit seemingly ‘modernised’ by means of the Third Way does not fit present times anymore. New answers are called for, new coalitions (eg forming a united Left) are perhaps a way to go, and reconnecting with its original constituency ought to be pursued. Yet, […] the PvdA lacks appealing leadership, societal vision, and political determination. […] Social Democratisation of Dutch society may well have appeared as potentially possible once upon a time, yet today it is a far cry”. My advice therefore: modernise or die!

Photo Credits: van Kerkhof

Related articles:

The Dutch 2021 elections: education as the new divide?, by André Krouwel.

Last call for the Dutch Left?, by Klara Boonstra.

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