The Netherlands for a long time had the reputation of a politically stable and predictable liberal country. However, under the surface, one could sense a different story. The fragmented party system repeatedly produced coalition governments, held together by compromises and incapable of addressing persistent issues faced by society. The resulting social frustration culminated in the anti-establishment Party for Freedom (PVV) coming first in the November 2023 parliamentary elections.
January 25, 2024
The Party for Freedom (PVV) coming first in the November 2023 parliamentary elections in the Netherlands was a surprise to many. Some called it an electoral earthquake in the context of a new wave of populist challengers across Europe. Parallels to other countries and parties, notably the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) or the Alternative for Germany (AfD) were drawn in an almost dramatic tone. More hysterical reactions warned of the uncertainty of the country’s support for Ukraine or even of its membership in Western structures such as the European Union being at stake. Others perceived the outcome from the opposite direction, emphasizing the profound crisis of the liberal political establishment and its inability to adapt to the issues facing European democracies in the current challenging times.
Fragmented Party System Leading to the Politics of Compromise
For some time now, the party system in the Netherlands has been known for its fragmentation and the challenging process to form coalition governments. So much so that the term “Dutchification of politics” started to be used to describe a change in which the political landscape is fragmented into so many small parties that government formation is de facto paralyzed. This also stems from the historical “pillarization” of the society embodied by the existence of numerous parties representing religious, ethnic, and other minorities.
The fragmented electoral landscape was reflected in the make-up of the Tweede Kamer, the lower chamber of parliament, and it also impacted the length of government formation talks, which could even take nearly 300 days of negotiations. This could be the case this time too, with no new government formed at the time of writing.
Governing became a delicate matter in such an environment. The remedy to repeated gridlock seemed to have always been found in one approach: compromise. This became nearly synonymous with the outgoing prime minister, Mark Rutte, for whom reaching consensus became such a priority that many said that he lost his ideological anchor completely.
Although the compromise model worked well in many areas, promoting a degree of predictability and economic prosperity, it could not find solutions to some issues facing society, such as social welfare policies, healthcare, or housing. Not only did these issues go unresolved; with time they also became more pressing. This led to disillusionment for many voters. Their frustration stemmed from the fact that no matter how they voted, the system would produce a broad coalition of similar parties that cemented the status quo. Therefore, electoral behavior in 2023 was affected by the trend of protest voting, which was already witnessed in the provincial elections in March fueling the success of the Farmer–Citizen Movement (BBB).
Sources of Societal Discontent
Among the pressing issues, migration policy got the spotlight in recent years. Migration, and more specifically asylum policy, overshadowed all else in the campaign. Unlike in some countries of Central Eastern Europe, where the domestic populists either completely fabricated or exaggerated the severity of this issue to gain support, in the Netherlands the system of processing asylum applications and accommodating those awaiting a decision has actually collapsed repeatedly in the past. Indeed, just days after the elections, a major asylum center announced it could no longer cope with the influx of new applicants.
The state has tried to solve the short-term crises by relocating asylum seekers to hotels, but there is a backlog of tens of thousands of outstanding applications for different forms of residency in the Netherlands that institutions cannot handle efficiently.
This inability is at the root of the Dutch society’s current mood. Voters’ frustration is not directly about asylum seekers or migration per se, but rather about the quality of the state’s response to issues the society faces. Although this sentiment is clear regarding the asylum system, it is far from being limited to this policy area.
The majority of state institutions face similar challenges after years of budgetary pressure from the governing, mostly liberal right-wing parties. Perhaps best captured in the scandal surrounding childcare allowances that led to the resignation of one of Rutte’s earlier governments, the welfare state started to show cracks as tight budgets proved inadequate to address complex social challenges. This scandal, in which families of predominantly foreign background were wrongly accused of committing childcare benefits fraud, created momentum for the New Social Contract party.
There have been comparable developments in the healthcare system, which was continuously praised for its ability to largely finance itself, but also was criticized for not providing healthcare on time and for putting the financial burden on the patients. Combined with rising inflation over the past years, this left many finding it difficult to cope.
Housing is another a cause of widespread frustration. The lack of public or otherwise affordable housing inspires numerous jokes about waiting lists for municipality-backed apartments spanning decades. The lack of affordable homes, especially for young people, is a challenge not only in the Netherlands but the problem is clearly getting out of hand when university students are forced to live in tents or caravans as no other housing is available. Recently, the housing situation in most Dutch university cities prompted academic institutions to issue a warning that international students should reconsider studying in the country if they have not secured a place to stay before their arrival.
The Netherlands also witnessed several violent crimes over the months preceding the elections. From stabbing and shooting incidents, Dutch society went through numerous acts of violence that have affected the public mood.
Dissatisfaction is also palpable with the quality of public services that used to function well, such as public transport. The national railway operator does not seem to have fully returned its services to former standards either. The constant turmoil at the country’s busiest airport is another example.
Adding to that, tension is brewing in society. Over the past months, the country has repeatedly been disrupted by either farmers protesting to sustain their business interests or climate activists. More recently, following the outbreak of the conflict in Gaza, major cities were also paralyzed due to protests targeting main squares, train stations, and other transportation hubs.
Tension in the country before the elections was thus high, and a heated campaign also sparked violence against some of the main candidates.
The Lesson from the Elections
The key lesson from the elections in the Netherlands is that, to prevent more success for populist anti-establishment parties in elections across Europe, the focus should be on ensuring the functioning of state institutions and that these support segments of society that need them the most. The importance of effective delivery of public services cannot be understated. The Dutch experience shows that even a successful and wealthy country may find itself in a major shift to the far right. When the state and its institutions do not work effectively for large parts of society for extended periods of time, this will be reflected in the political choices of the electorate.
Tomáš Cirhan is a post-doctoral researcher at the Charles University in Prague.
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