In terms of impact, the success story of the 2012 Dutch election was Diederik Samsom’s Labour party (PvdA). Though Samsom finished a close second to Mark Rutte, he breathed new life into Labour with an energetic campaign and swelled its cohort of MPs, an outcome that seemed unthinkable only three weeks earlier. Before the opening debate the pundits were anticipating a neck-and-neck race between Rutte’s Liberals (VVD) and the Socialist Party led by Emile Roemer. But once the substantial arguments got under way in September Roemer wilted and Samsom charged into the gap, while Rutte held his nerve to secure a second term as prime minister – in a pick-and-mix ‘grand coalition’ with the PvdA. By the end the unthinkable thing was that Roemer had ever been considered a serious contender: the SP finished on 15 seats, rather than the 30 to 35 that seemed to be theirs for the taking during the summer recess.
This time around the omens are far less good for Labour. Lodewijk Asscher, who replaced Samsom as leader in the autumn, has spent the last four years as deputy prime minister steering through a legislative programme that has revived the economy but left many voters still feeling that the recovery has come at a cost to them, in terms of greater job insecurity, a later retirement age, reduced support for sickness and unemployment, and the ‘participation society’ that shifts the burden of care from the welfare state to semi-formalised networks of family and friends, all working for free. This process has been especially disorienting for once loyal Labour voters. Asscher has started the campaign in tigerish mood, taking the fight directly to Geert Wilders and staking his ground as one of the sternest critics of Donald Trump’s USA, along with fellow PvdA ministers such as Bert Koenders and Lilianne Ploumen. It remains to be seen if this reassertion of Labour’s internationalist values will bring its supporters back into the fold.
All the latest opinion polls suggest that Dutch voters are set to make a pronounced shift to the right. Political analysts have noted that since the war, the electorate has reflected a slight but stable right-wing bias: the parties of the right have typically taken around 50% to 55% of the vote, compared to 45% to 50% on the left. That explains why the Christian Democrats and their forerunners were involved in every government from 1946 until 1994. The Kok cabinets that followed coincided with the generational shift that saw the traditional, rural conservative right (CDA) overtaken by the pro-free-enterprise, suburban New Right embodied by the VVD. The VVD’s first election ‘victories’, in 2010 and 2012, marked the consummation of this process.
Samsom’s electoral success, striking as it was, was largely won by gobbling up Roemer’s support on the left, just as Rutte’s more modest gains came at the expense of the CDA and the progressive liberal D66 faction. The three main parties of the right – VVD, CDA and PVV – took 73 seats against 57 for the bastions of the left: PvdA, SP and GreenLeft. On current projections the trio on the right are poised to share around 70 seats in March, while the left block could shrink to somewhere nearer 40, little more than a quarter of the Parliament.
Labour’s decline has magnified the malaise of the left. PvdA voters have drifted in all directions in the last decade: working-class voters have gone to the PVV or the SP, while D66’s wooing of the progressive middle class left allowed it to seize a string of Labour strongholds in the 2014 local elections including Amsterdam, Nijmegen and Groningen. A survey this week indicated that the rise of Denk has eroded its once rock-solid support among minority ethnic voters. Many of the policies of the orthodox left have been absorbed by parties on other points of the spectrum. The PVV’s skeleton manifesto combines a nationalist stance on immigration and Europe with higher public spending on housing and healthcare. 50Plus has thrived with its staunch defence of the Dutch pension system introduced by the first Labour prime minister, Willem Drees. Even the Animal Rights Party (PvdD), with its commitments to reintroduce subsidised social housing and student grants, is making gains with a programme that borrows heavily from the left.
It’s unlikely that a large chunk of left-wing voters has simply vanished in five years, unless there’s been some kind of under-reported massacre in Delfzijl. Applying Occam’s razor, the more plausible explanation is that none of the established parties on the left has managed to convince their natural supporters to back them. All of this suggests that the glaring opening in the 2017 election campaign is for a strong candidate on the left to hoover up the vote as Samsom did in 2012. And in that context, the best placed contender is surely the GreenLeft leader, Jesse Klaver. Klaver has all the right attributes to perform well in debates: young, articulate, quick-witted and telegenic, he can stand as the newcomer against the old guard – including Wilders, who will be casting himself in the role of outsider for the fourth general election in a row. GreenLeft has been steadily making inroads in the polls and is snapping at the heels of the CDA and D66 on 15 seats.
Perhaps the best compliment Klaver has been paid is that Rutte and Wilders have threatened to boycott RTL’s leaders’ debate on February 26 if it is extended from four parties to five or six to reflect the wafer-thin margins in the polls. Without Klaver the debate will have a pronounced centre-right flavour comprising PVV, VVD, CDA and D66, so the presence of GreenLeft, and possibly the Socialists, would move the fulcrum significantly. Samsom’s run in 2012 began with a strong performance in the opening debate, which also proved the ruin of Roemer. The big difference this time is that Klaver doesn’t have a front-runner on the left to reel in, but if he gets a chance to make an impression in the opening debate the momentum could shift his way. A week is a long time in politics; in Dutch politics, three weeks can define an era.