Five things to look out for in the Dutch local elections

The Hague election posterIt’s council election day in the Netherlands, but with more than a dozen national parties and hundreds of independent local groups involved, the picture is as fragmented as a hagelslag sandwich. Yet the elections are the first chance for the voters to their say since Mark Rutte’s third government took office six months ago and observers will be looking for indicators of the public mood. Here are five things to look out for as the results come in on Wednesday evening.

1. Will local parties strengthen their grip?

Localism has been a steady trend in Dutch local politics for decades: some councils are made up entirely of local factions, and some national party branches have split off and rebranded themselves as independent groups. Labour (PvdA) has been particularly prolific in this regard, producing spin-offs such as Pro6 in Cranendonck and Nederweert Anders in Limburg. The loss of access to central party funds appear to be outweighed by the advantages of being able to position yourself closer to voters on local issues. Opinion polls indicate that local groups will poll around 30% of the vote, around twice as much as any of the national parties.

2. So is there anything in it for the national parties?

The last round of council elections in 2014 were a success for D66, which finished first in four of the six largest municipalities. Forming coalitions at local level raised the party’s profile and gave it a momentum which it carried into last year’s parliamentary elections. Heading in the other direction was Labour, which was overtaken in Amsterdam for the first time since the war, surrendered once ironclad fortresses such as Groningen, and went on to lose three-quarters of its seats in parliament. The PvdA will lose seats again this time but look for signs that its decline has hit the bottom. The elections will also be a test of whether the Socialist Party has rediscovered its vitality since Lilian Marijnissen took over from Emile Roemer. In the provinces the CDA’s pre-eminence at local level will face a challenge from the VVD as the latter looks to supplant it as the default party of government.

3. Who will come out on top in the cities?

D66 is facing a challenge in Amsterdam and The Hague from GroenLinks, who are also expected to consolidate their position in Utrecht. For D66 it’s a test of how much of the gains from 2014 they can hang on to, while GroenLinks will hope that a strong performance will galvanise a party that has flatlined since it opted out of joining the coalition in the summer. Rotterdam’s vaudevillian contest has dominated the campaign headlines, with Leefbaar Rotterdam holding off a challenge from the PVV on the right while the left-wing parties got into a pickle over an electoral pact with Islamic party NIDA. But the most intriguing contest is in The Hague, where any of four parties could finish on top: D66 and GroenLinks are finely balanced against the VVD and the populist Groep de Mos.

4. Will the PVV overcome its campaign woes?

A primary rule of following Dutch politics is that you write off Geert Wilders at your peril, but even by the PVV’s standards 2018 so far has been a chaotic year. Wilders’s original plan to field candidates in 60 municipalities had to be trimmed because of a lack of suitable candidates and eventually cut to 30. More setbacks ensued: infighting in The Hague, the pre-emptive walkout of a candidate in Utrecht who complained the party was ‘too moderate’ and the sacking of the PVV’s lead candidate in Rotterdam the day after the campaign launch because of his links to far-right groups. The PVV will end up with more councillors, because it only stood in two municipalities last time, but the challenge to Leefbaar Rotterdam has fizzled out, it could lose half its councillors in The Hague and Wilders’s status as the standard bearer on the populist right has been challenged by the rise of Thierry Baudet’s Forum voor Democratie.

5. What about the newcomers?

Despite the rise of localism, more national parties have joined the race, with Denk, Forum voor Democratie and 50Plus fielding candidates for the first time. FvD have been the biggest movers in the polls in the last year –  Tom Louwerse’s aggregated poll of polls suggests they would win 11 to 15 seats in a general election – but Baudet’s party is only standing in Amsterdam, where they are projected to pick up two or  three seats. Denk and Bij1 – the party founded by Sylvana Simons after she split from Denk – are also expected to make the cut, in which case Amsterdam’s 45 seats could be shared between 11 parties. Denk are also expected to bag two seats in Rotterdam, where they are challenging the established local Islamic party Nida. 50Plus are participating in 15 municipalities, including Rotterdam, The Hague, Eindhoven and Apeldoorn.

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