Can polder politics hold back the populist tide?

Evening Snow Winter Dyke Wind MillThe local government house organ Binnenlands Bestuur is not many people’s idea of required reading, but last week it published a report highlighting a disturbing trend in Dutch democracy. In 2016 no fewer than 28 coalitions collapsed at municipal level, an unprecedentedly high figure (as reported in NRC, lest anyone accuse me of being a devotee of bureaucratic literature). When the previous record of 24 was set four years ago, there were 415 municipalities; today there are 390, or 6% fewer.

One common thread ran through the litany of toppled administrations: fragmentation. Dutch local government these days is dominated by local-interest parties, from Leefbaar Rotterdam to Lokaal Dinkelland, who now take around 30% of the vote and hold one-third of municipal seats. These form brittle coalitions with the more traditional parties who have often been displaced by the local fractions. Coalition partners are increasingly unwilling to work through their differences, concluded Binnenlands Bestuur. This is equally true of two-party administrations, which are theoretically more stable, as it is of alliances between three or more fractions.

The same fragmentation is visible at national level. The current parliament started out in 2012 with an unprecedented 12 parties and finished with 17, in a chamber of just 150 deputies. More than 80 groups will contest the general election in March. Among those with a realistic chance of winning seats are 50Plus, which fights for the interests of older voters, the animal welfare party PvdD and DENK, the first party to openly court its voters from one ethnic group (though some would argue that Geert Wilders’s political programme is a sustained dog-whistle to the disgruntled white working-class).

Last week Mark Rutte explicitly ruled out any prospect of a coalition between his Liberal Party (VVD) and Wilders’s PVV. The chance was ‘not 0.1 per cent, but nil’, Rutte said in the TV show Buitenhof. This caused a commotion in the Dutch media, even though Wilders himself has made it plain for over a year that the loathing is mutual: he will only govern with the Liberals if Rutte is replaced as leader. Other parties, including the progressive liberal D66 group, the Christian Democrats (CDA) and GreenLeft have also said they will not entertain the idea of an alliance with the PVV, and Wilders’s group has been an outcast in Parliament ever since his criminal outburst against Moroccans during the local election campaign two years ago.

For a century the foundation of Dutch politics has been the poldermodel. In a country under constant threat of inundation, the need for compromise and partnership to keep the dykes maintained has always been paramount. Ideological differences have historically taken place to the need to come up with practical solutions, and an understanding that collective effort and private space are mutually dependent. If an Englishman’s home is his castle, a Dutchman’s property is defined by the sluice gate he shares with his neighbour. It has created a political culture of endless, patient negotiation that has, for the most part, been both crashingly dull and remarkably effective.

But Dutch elections are being increasingly defined not by which parties might go into coalition with each other, but by who has excluded whom from the outset. At the last election Rutte set himself squarely against the Socialist Party, then leading the opinion polls, and Emile Roemer’s support duly crumbled. Whether the same will happen to Wilders remains to be seen, but in the age of Trump voters’ complicity in the system can no longer be taken for granted. Rutte may well have to cobble together a ‘stop Wilders’ coalition of four or five parties to keep the culture of consensus on solid ground. In the longer term, the business of forming governments is likely to become even thornier. Support for traditional parties is ebbing away – a survey published in Vrij Nederland this week found that the PVV has an even strong lead among young voters than in the general population – and as parties’ support bases become narrower, their scope for finding common ground and diminishes. In that respect the fragile coalitions in local government may be not so much the canary in the coalmine as the upstream weir that stops the cities flooding.

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