Next week’s election is the closest contest anyone can remember, and yet the campaign so far has stood out only for its dullness. It has the passive tension of a flat stage in a cycle race: when the contenders are so tightly bunched, the leader who strikes first risks being overwhelmed in the rush to the finish line. The structure of the televised debates, broken up into short panel discussions to try to spread the airtime evenly across a large but narrow field, has limited opportunities for direct confrontation still further. But the root cause is that none of the leaders has shown any real desire to seize the initiative.
The absence of Geert Wilders has undoubtedly diminished the spectacle. Whatever the rights and wrongs of his politics, Wilders is a fixed object in the landscape that his rivals orient themselves by. The paradox is that none of the other parties has been able to capitalise on the drop in support for the PVV in recent weeks. A state of paralysis has set in.
The most significant cohort of voters in recent Dutch elections has been the in-betweeners: those who back the PVV in opinion polls but pick one of the mainstream parties on the ballot paper. This might explain the sterile, non-confrontational nature of the debates: the parties are less interested in competing with each other than in positioning themselves to catch the votes flaking away from Wilders. So while most commentators believed Christian Democrat leader Sybrand Buma had an undistinguished night at RTL’s debate on Sunday, the polls nevertheless showed the CDA gaining ground. Buma has adopted a harder line on immigration and asserted the supremacy of Christian culture, claiming, as only a privileged white men could, that it has guaranteed 1,000 years of equality between men and women. (In reality, until 1956 married women couldn’t open a bank account or travel abroad without their husband’s permission.) Buma’s proposal for children to have to sing the national anthem in school was even put to Parliament by the PVV last November; on that occasion the CDA voted against the plan.
Why voters desert Wilders at election time is a matter of speculation, but it may be that pragmatic concerns take over. At election time Dutch voters have an incentive to choose parties that have a realistic chance of being in the coalition, because that’s their best chance of influencing the government. Away from elections they can keep the government in check by threatening to support Wilders if the cabinet fails to appease their anger. Many commentators suspect that Wilders is complicit in this process, because he has nothing to gain from the kind of concessions and compromises that being government requires. Far better to be a party of perpetual protest, shouting demands from the sidelines without the burden of having to carrying them out.
While the parties all have different strategies for attracting Wilders, they are aware, even if only subliminally, that his volatile support is their best source of votes. And so they set about assimilating and sanitising the PVV’s core message. While Buma’s CDA engages in the culture wars, Mark Rutte combines a tougher attitude to immigrants with fiscal responsibility, Lodewijk Asscher vows to restrict migrant labour within the EU and Henk Krol sweeps up the pensioners angry at being made to work until 67. Even D66’s inclusive, pro-European stance is framed as the antithesis to Wilders’s antagonism. He continues to control the agenda even in absentia. There are two dangers to this approach: firstly, in concentrating on the same narrow band of floating voters, the parties risk cancelling each other out, and secondly, if the choice is between various vanilla versions of the PVV, the in-betweeners may decide to stick with the hardcore original. The latest opinion poll suggests that Wilders may have halted the slide of recent weeks; if he now breezes into the campaign in the last few days and recaptures the lost ground, his rivals should blame nobody but themselves.