Provincial elections in a small country such as the Netherlands would normally be considered a rather boring event and not worth mentioning. However, the recent elections of 20 March led to the rise of the right-wing Forum voor Democratie (FvD) party, and the Rutte government lost its majority in the senate. This represents a turning point after a few years of relative stability.
On 20 March, the Netherlands held its provincial elections. During those elections, people voted for the provincial councils. Indirectly, these councils elect the senate, in which the government needs a majority in order to rule efficiently. The Senate approves laws “on merely technical issues” after they have been passed by parliament, but in practice, no government can rule without a majority in the senate.
It was known from the start that these were no normal provincial elections, as politicians from all parties were nervously campaigning on national issues. These were basically by-elections for Mark Rutte's third government. This is already a four-party coalition, which has to overcome many hurdles to pass laws. But without a majority in the senate, matters would become more complicated, as they would have to make agreements with at least one additional party.
The shooting in Utrecht
Two days before the elections, on 18 March, there was a shooting in a tram in Utrecht. Three people were killed in this random act of violence. The Dutch state for the first time initiated “threat level 5”, which presupposes a terrorist attack. Strategic points were guarded, schools were closed, and residents of Utrecht were urged to stay indoors.
The perpetrator was a lumpen type with a past of criminal acts, involved in the drug trade and sexual abuse of addicted women; a criminal psychopath who was essentially a result of the incompetence of the state bureaucracy and cuts to mental health services. According to the government, a note was found, which supposed to be proof that this shooting was a terrorist act, but this has not been made public as of now.
As the shooter had a Turkish name, this was used by the right-wing FvD and PVV parties to step up their dirty campaign against “multicultural society”, targeting Muslims and immigrants in general, two days before the elections.
The rise of the FvD
The result of the elections was that the Rutte government indeed lost its majority in the 75-seat senate. The government parties now only have 31 seats together (41 percent). Another shock for Mark Rutte was that his party, the 'conservative liberal' VVD, lost its position as the biggest party in the senate. Until now, Rutte could state that, in spite of all the unpopular measures he has taken over the years, the economy seems to be booming and the VVD is still the biggest party (although in an extremely fragmented political landscape).
The biggest party in the senate now is the FvD, a party that went from 0 to 13 seats (17 percent) at once. This is a reactionary, right-wing nationalist party, which managed to present itself as "anti-establishment". Its leader, Thierry Baudet, is a third-rate pseudo-intellectual who behaves as a flamboyant showman to provoke the public with attacks on 'the political elite', immigrants, climate scientists (he is a denier of man-made climate change), journalists, left-wing teachers and everybody else he does not like.
Baudet has a history of flirting with right-wing extremist ideas. It is known he visited Jean Marie Le Pen in the past, and last year he dined with American white supremacist Jared Taylor. However, that does not mean, as some on the left say, that his party is a fascist movement and that there is a rise of fascism in the Netherlands. This party is a demagogic bourgeois party with links to an adventurist section of the ruling class, which prefers the FvD as a more controllable party than Geert Wilders' PVV. It has attracted businesspeople, former politicians of other right-wing parties, and other adventurers.
Yes, fascist 'alt-right' elements have been active in the party and its youth movement, and it's clear there is a certain layer that is ready for a confrontation with left-wing activists. But this is proportionally a very small layer that can easily be stopped when the labour movement uses its power to mobilise.
The real reason for people voting for FvD was to vote against Mark Rutte's government. This was partially (about a third) by former Geert Wilders supporters who sought a new way out and partially by right-wing voters whose trust in the Rutte government has been broken. It is a reflection of these layers (mostly home-owning workers and middle-class people in the suburbs and countryside) looking for a way out of the general impasse.
An important issue driving the vote has been the Climate Agreement. Presenting itself as going green and thinking about climate issues, the Rutte government has come up with a “climate agreement”, which is basically a big subsidy package for polluting multinational companies like Shell (which had a net profit of €20 million in 2018), paid for by households and small businesses through higher energy taxes. The net result is that big companies get a yearly €450 million of subsidies, while households and small businesses pay €1450 million extra on taxes.
Baudet demagogically attacked this agreement as hurting the ordinary Dutch people, using climate change denial and conspiracy theories in his message against the “climate lobby”. This was a distraction from the rest of his pro-business programme, through which he wants to lower taxes on profits and make it easier to fire workers. On the left, however, there was no real working-class answer to this: none of the parties could link the climate issue to the class struggle and expose the reactionary demagogy of Baudet.
After it became clear the FvD had become the biggest party in the senate, big shock waves were sent through society. From the youth, there was a radical anti-racist reaction. The yearly anti-racist march, held on 23 March in Amsterdam, normally counted 1,000-2,000 participants. This year the number was 10,000, with clear slogans against the system. This shows positively that the situation is not one of a shift to the right, but increasing polarisation and radicalisation.
GroenLinks and the climate movement
GroenLinks (the green left), with its base of mostly urban middle-class people, received a lot of votes of mostly young people who are ready to fight climate change. It went up from four to nine seats (12 percent) in the senate. It has become a first point of reference for a new generation of youth that is getting politically active. As it declined to join the Rutte III government in 2017, there is still a lot of enthusiasm for the party, enhanced by the recent climate movement.
The international movement of school student strikes for the climate also touched the Netherlands. 10 March saw a massive Climate March in Amsterdam, with 40,000 people marching through the heavy rain. This important issue of climate change has become very important for the new generation. When GroenLinks joins the government or sells out through agreements with Rutte and/or other bourgeois politicians, this will lead to a radicalisation of these young layers.
The decline of the Socialist Party
Groenlinks is the only party on the left that managed to grow. The Dutch Labour Party, after its historic defeat in 2017, managed to recover slightly (if we compare the results with the general elections of 2017), but still lost a seat in the senate (where it got 9 percent of the votes). Almost half of its voters were older than 65, which shows there is no real recovery in the long term. That's the result of decades of playing the left foot of the Dutch ruling class.
The biggest loser of the elections, however, was the Socialist Party. It went down from nine to four seats (5 percent). In the early 2000s, this party was hailed as a great example for the European Left. It was a point of attraction for the advanced layers of the working class and the radical youth. But it has now become a shadow of its former self.
Since 2006, the party has been moderating its tone, in order to show that it is a “serious, responsible” political party. It has been joining municipal and provincial coalitions, even with right-wing parties. In the meantime, many critical left-wing members have been driven out bureaucratically. The bureaucratic centralist structure of the ex-Stalinist party stifles debate and real discussion about political issues. In the 2017 general elections, the party lost a seat, despite having spent years in opposition to a very unpopular government. The party does not connect with the new generation of radicalised young people.
During these elections, the leadership stated that the main issue was climate change, with GroenLinks and FvD occupying polarised positions, while the SP was “nuanced on this”. On this issue, the Socialist Party had a vague reformist programme of “climate justice”, which involves dividing the burden of averting climate change differently through some tax measures. Instead, it should have come out with a clear, radical programme of expropriating Shell without compensation (as the company has been subsidised and de facto pays no tax), and lowering the energy prices for working people and small companies. In this way, it could at least have presented a socialist alternative to the false dichotomy of green liberalism vs. right-wing demagogy.
It is up to the critical membership to save the party. The party's chauvinistic position towards migrants (they are in favour of labour migration controls in Europe and “humanitarian asylum application centres in North Africa” for migrants that want to enter Europe) has led to a lot of internal friction. There are many members that see the party has been going downhill over the years, but with the excuse of maintaining party unity, the bureaucracy has managed to stop a real internal political debate from taking place. The time is now more ripe than ever to argue for a radical change in course.
The next two years for Rutte
Rutte's government coalition now has to rule with the support of at least one extra party in the Senate. This can be either FvD, GroenLinks or the PvdA (Labour). The first two options would bring trouble for the coalition government.
Getting into an agreement with FvD (on the basis of cutting down the climate agreement and/or implementing more policies against immigrants) would lead to problems with the liberal D66 party and the Christian Union. Meanwhile, GroenLinks could profit from this situation in the next elections.
If Rutte makes an agreement with GroenLinks (on the basis of some amendments to the climate agreement), this would be seen as a big sell-out. Rutte's party, VVD and coalition partner CDA (the Christian Democrats) would protest, and FvD would profit from this situation. At the same time, young politicised people would start to see the nature of GroenLinks and radicalise. This would lead to further polarisation.
It is not excluded that Rutte manages to make a deal with the PvdA, which has a history of joining together with the right-wing parties, to 'save the day' for the ruling class. However, as the party is still recovering from the dramatic 2017 elections, it might not be too eager to join at this point.
If no scenario works out, Rutte has to make a separate, ad hoc deal for every law to pass through the senate. This was the situation for his previous government, but it consisted of two parties rather than four. This shows that no scenarios are really favourable for Rutte and that the first two good years of Rutte III will now be followed by two worse ones.
While there has been an economic recovery and unemployment is historically low, the situation is very contradictory. The unemployment figure of 3.5 percent is bettered in Europe only the Czech Republic and Germany. However, the Netherlands has the highest number of precarious 'flex contracts' in Europe after Spain. There is also a huge gap between older workers and young workers.
There is an enormous property bubble, with a rise in house prices of 42 percent between 2013 and 2018, while real wages remained stagnant. Getting affordable housing is a constant struggle for working people and youth. When the housing bubble bursts, there will be many victims. According to the OECD, in 2015, the poorest 60 percent of households had negative net wealth, because their mortgage debts were worth more than their property.
During the crisis years, there has been a huge attack on wages and working conditions. Now, the labour movement is slowly awakening and fighting back. Since the FNV trade union's offensive for higher wages started last year, there is a lot of talk about a “labour shortage”, which shows that the situation is now favourable to win concessions from the bosses.
It is an economic struggle, but also a political one. The Rutte government raised the lower tax rate from 6 percent to 9 percent at the start of 2019, and that now comes with higher energy taxes. It wants to “reform” the pension system by taking steps towards the possible privatisation of pension funds.
With the Rutte government now in a weaker situation, it is the task of the labour movement to step up its battles. On 15 March there was a huge teachers’ strike, with 40,000 teachers, from primary schools to university level, demonstrating in the Hague. Big actions against the attack on pensions were held on 18 March, combining demonstrations with strikes in certain sectors all over the country. There is a mood to fight, which should not be betrayed by having illusions in GroenLinks or PvdA making a deal with Rutte. A general day of action of all sectors against Rutte III should be called by the FNV union federation as a first step to further actions.
There is a situation of increasing polarisation, as the Netherlands is preparing to join the “European mainstream” in terms of crisis and political instability. In these conditions, it is necessary to join and help build the Dutch Marxist Tendency, so we can prepare for more turbulent events in the future.