Strategy debates of Dutch political parties in 2017

On the 15th of March 2017 the Dutch legislative election took place. Winner was the incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte from the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) with 21.2 per cent. Geert Wilders from the Party for Freedom (PVV) achieved 13 per cent, the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) 12.4 per cent, the Democrats 66 12.2 per cent, the Socialist party 9.1 per cent and the GreenLeft party 9.1 per cent. The social democratic PvdA got 5.7 per cent.        

The campaign preceding the 2017 Dutch parliamentary election was marked by deep political polarization. With traditional right-wing issues, such as immigration and integration, dominating public debates, parties on the left have had a hard time to make their messages a central part of the political discussion. The horse-race between the incumbent VVD and the anti-immigrant PVV saw media attention centred around these two parties, with observes noting that it is very likely that Prime Minister Mark Rutte will maintain his post, given the electoral outcome.

As a result of PVV’s prolonged lead in the polls, many other parties have adapted to the anti-immigration and EU-critical message of the party. In particular, VVD has sent a message to “all Dutch citizens” to “act normal or leave”; the SP has voiced opposition to labour migration from newer eastern-EU member-states and the PvdA has stressed that the EU should guarantee that there is “equal pay for equal work” within its borders, or dismantle the common labour market. While PVV did not win the elections, it managed to dominate the public debate – even though Wilders hardly campaigned and the party’s manifesto was one page long –anti-immigration issues took a centre stage as both the traditional right wing parties (VVD and CDA) used similar rhetoric and adopted similar positions.

 More than four years earlier, the 2012 elections resulted in a coalition between PvdA and VVD, and while the liberals managed to maintain the highest proportion of support, holding on to 33 of their 41 seats, the social democrats lost 29 of their 38 seats. The PvdA ended up with only 9 seats, which is by far the lowest proportion the social democrats obtained in the post-war period. Many of its previous supporters became disillusioned with the party’s concessions to its right-wing coalition partner. Since 2012 the coalition government introduced cuts to welfare entitlements for the unemployed and the disabled and transformed a long-standing universal student grant into a loan system. In addition, the government relaxed the rules for firing employees, introduced a step-wise pension age increase and reduced state funding for elderly care homes. Disillusioned with such policies, many left-wing voters abandoned the PvdA, opting for competitors to the left and even the centre-right. Overall, parties on the left received the lowest combined support since 1945. The decline of the social democrats was already evident in 2014, when PvdA suffered heavy losses in municipal elections and was ousted from office in Amsterdam for the first time in the post-war period.

The withering away of support for the PvdA in 2017 benefitted several other parties, with more progressive voters overwhelmingly migrating to the GL, which won 10 seats; traditional leftists migrating to the Socialist Party (SP, but in turn this party also lost one seat) and centrist voters migrating to the social liberal D66. Overall, the parties on the left (PvdA, SP and GL) lost 20 seats.

The other incumbent – the right-wing VVD, also suffered a substantial loss, though the liberals remained the largest party in parliament, clearly beating its main rival – the anti-immigrant PVV, as well and the traditionalist CDA.

Individual Overview

The Strategic Situation of the Social Democrats (PvdA)

In the last two decades, PvdA has been facing an increasingly hostile right wing party bloc, which has been pulled into a more socially conservative, illiberal, economic right-wing direction due to the popularity of anti-immigrant political mobilisation. For social democrats, the most important structural factor accounting for their overall weakening has been the process of “individualization.” The “new” Left that successfully emerged in the 1970s embraced libertarian ideas and soon many elements of this “liberalization of the individual” became part and parcel of social democratic party platforms as well. This created a deep fundamental ideological crisis for the Dutch social democrats, as the idea of free and individual choice undermined the traditional drivers of left wing thought: solidarity and state interventionism. Mixing libertarian views of societal relations with a statist view of economics was untenable. This ideological shift empowered right wing conservatives, who had always preferred assuming individual responsibility for one’s own life to submitting to public arrangements and now no longer faced an ideological challenge to that idea. Individualization not only undermined the ideological thrust of PvdA, but it also eroded class identities. The social democrats can no longer politicize the class struggle and economically emancipate the working classes, as the latter had partly disappeared through upward social mobility, while the remnants had fragmented in terms of ethnic background (immigrants), age (pension-less elderly), and labour market position (the working poor, flex-workers and illegal labourers). PvdA had lost its core ideological concepts and core support, which meant that the party needed to ideologically and electorally reorient itself in the face of the growing popularity of liberal and conservative ideas. Popular support for social and economic state interventionism was further undermined. The end of the cold war plunged the PvdA even deeper into their existentialist crisis. Now that state interventionism had been discredited and society denied, the social democrats reoriented themselves toward liberalism and developed the “Third Way” ideology. While the name does not necessarily acknowledge a hierarchical status lower than conservatism and liberalism, the result was nevertheless a further de-legitimisation of left wing politics and statist interventionism. This was exemplified in the 2017 election - Dutch social democracy received their hardest blow to date, with its electorate massively shifting to progressive parties, which do not necessarily put emphasis on economic policy.

The Strategic situation of the Liberals (VVD)

Despite the loss of 8 seats, the liberal right-wing People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy managed to gain the largest number of seats in the 2017 Dutch general election for the third time in a row. Never during the post-war period was parliament so fragmented. The liberal party’s appeal for building a ‘participatory society’ where citizens are taking care of themselves, without any reliance on the state has resonated with large sections of the electorate. Some aspects of the plan were already initiated under the previous coalition – VVD has introduced budget cuts in welfare provisions and a number of state subsidised sectors such as culture and care for the elderly. Its platform entails tax and public sector cuts, welfare state retrenchment and relaxing rules for firing employees. While in government, VVD has managed to deliver on many of its promises, although, thus far, its coalition partner PvdA prevented the liberals from lowering taxes for the highest income bracket (instead some redistribution measures were introduced). Contrary to parties on the left, the VVD favours more state investment in road infrastructure, rather than in the public transport network.

Despite its liberal credentials, the VVD has been a vocal opponent of further liberalising the soft-drug tolerance policy and has called for tougher sentences for crimes, even minor ones. VVD considers that limiting citizen’s privacy is justified when it comes to fighting terrorism and that Dutch nationals who travelled to fight in war-zones should not be allowed to return to the Netherlands. Nevertheless, the party has maintained a favourable position towards gay rights and euthanasia and is still a stringent advocate of individual liberties.

While the VVD is generally pro-European, the liberals have been critical towards the deepening of EU federalization. They are, however, strong supporters of free trade within the union, as well as international trade agreements with the United States and Canada. Domestically, the party has refused to raise taxes for multinational corporations, arguing that tax regulations would cost the Netherlands thousands of jobs.

The strategic situation of the Party for Freedom (PVV)

At the beginning of the 21st century, the Netherlands has experienced a rise of anti-immigration attitudes that materialized first in support for Pim Fortuyn’s Lijst Pim Fortuyn (LPF) and later for the Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV). The Eurosceptic party has always been under firm control by its founder – and only formal member - Geert Wilders, a former MP for the liberal VVD. PVV entered parliament in 2006 with 5.9 per cent of the vote and became known for its criticism of the (left-wing) political establishment, its hostility towards immigration and multiculturalism, and its fight against a perceived ‘Islamisation’ of society. In the election of June 2010 the Freedom Party almost tripled its seat-share, winning over 15 per cent of the vote. The PVV subsequently provided parliamentary support for a governing minority coalition, made up of the Christian Democrats (CDA) and the right-wing Liberals (VVD), in exchange for the implementation of some of its key policies, such as increasing the period a person needs to live in the Netherlands legally, before being able to apply for Dutch citizenship.

With regard to socio-economic issues, PVV favours economic deregulation, lowering taxation and budget cuts in public spending. While Wilders had always opposed raising the pension age, he did initially severely criticise the supposedly overly generous welfare state and argued fiercely for less state intervention and a more flexible labour market. After the 2010 election, however, the PVV made a U-turn with regard to several socio-economic matters. The party then called for the preservation of general welfare entitlements, and opposed easing the requisites for laying-off employees, the reduction of unemployment benefits, and the ‘marketisation’ of the health care sector. One could characterise PVV’s stance as increasingly nativist in its approach to welfare state provisions. The PVV advocates only for generic measures that also benefit the wealthy and supports ‘middle class subsidies’ such as mortgage interest subsidies for house owners and student grants. The party opposes actual redistribution and favours typical right-wing laissez faire policies such as tax cuts and deregulation. Moreover, it strongly opposes all kinds of cultural subsidies and investments in the integration of immigrants. The PVV clearly portrays itself as the real defender of ‘hard-working’ native population and particularly pensioners. This ideological swing towards a more welfare chauvinist appeal moved the PVV closer to the left. Prime Minister Mark Rutte has compared PVV’s economic stances to those of the Socialist Party, which had traditionally been the staunchest defender of welfare entitlements and government spending.

PVV is a very strong opponent of European integration and the Eurozone, particularly since the 2005 referendum on the Constitutional Treaty. In the parliamentary election campaign of 2012 and 2017 the issue of European integration and the Euro featured prominently in Wilders’ discourse. In his public appearances, Wilders often targets unelected ‘Eurocrats’, mendacious Southern Europeans, and cheap labour migration from Eastern Europe that ‘threaten to take over Dutch jobs. In recent years, the PVV has moved from Eurosceptic to a more Euro-rejectionist stance, now favouring a Dutch ‘exit’ from the European Union and the Eurozone altogether. This Euro-rejectionist attitude dovetailed with the PVV’s welfare chauvinism - Dutch citizens were not to suffer from austerity measures whilst their tax contributions were being handed out to untrustworthy Mediterranean and Eastern European countries.

The strategic situation of the Christian Democrats (CDA)

The Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) was formed in 1977 as a merger of three minor Christian parties that joined forces in order to achieve better electoral results. The party has participated in all but three governments since then.           

During the 1980s and 1990s the CDA had de-emphasized its Christian identity in order to link into the dominant neo-liberal trend. Recently, however, the party reinvented itself with a new moral agenda and was eager to shift party competition to non-material issues. Based on Christian democratic principles, CDA emphasizes an individual’s responsibility to take an active role in society. CDA strongly focuses on freedom of religion, and emphasizes the value of self-organization in religious institutions. Nevertheless, facing strong competition from far-right rivals, the party has been increasingly opposed to immigration form countries with Muslim majority population and has argued that there are serious shortcomings regarding the integration of non-European foreigners. According to the CDA, religion should not be limited to the private sphere and traditional norms and values should serve as guidance to society.

With regard to personal freedoms, the Christian Democrats are among the most conservative parties in the Dutch political landscape. Although numerous liberal reforms, such as the legalisation of euthanasia, prostitution and gay marriage were implemented under a government which the party led, CDA is currently opposed to euthanasia, expanding the rights for homosexuals, and is in favour of closing all coffee-shops that sell marijuana legally. The party enjoys a very strong backing among farmers and performs best electorally in provincial and rural areas. Thus, CDA is a coherent promoter of farmers’ interests in parliament. The Christian Democrats are supportive of market-driven economic reforms and have consistently vote in favour of cuts in welfare provisions.

The strategic situation of the Democrats (D66)

The social liberal party Democrats 66 (D66) was formed in 1966 with the objective to democratise the Dutch political system, which was at the time pillarised and permeated by deep fragmentation along traditional religious and ideological lines of division. D66 is comprised of two currents - the radical democrats and the progressive liberals. Initially, the party called for the radical democratisation of Dutch society and politics by introducing more direct democracy and a first past the post electoral system. Over time their electoral reform proposals were moderated, with the party currently favouring a German-style mixed member proportional representation. The calls for radical democratisation were combined with a pragmatic attitude and collaboration with all centre-left and centre-right parties, with whom the D66 has coalesced in various combinations.

The progressive wing of D66 has been more influential since the turn of the century, when the party explicitly adopted a progressive liberal image. They have strong libertarian stances on matters related to personal freedoms – as a junior coalition partner D66 has been instrumental for the legalisation of soft-drugs, euthanasia, gay marriage and prostitution.

 In the economic realm, the party was originally more in favour of a mixed economy combining market economics and government intervention, but has shifted to the right over the last decades. D66 is now a proponent of increased flexibility in the labour market and tax-cuts for the lower and middle classes. At the same time, the social liberals propose increased spending on education and innovation, while supporting deregulation of the education sector. The environment is also an important issue for D66 – the party is in favour of increasing investment in sustainable energy. In the past, D66 has backed market oriented economic reform in the welfare and healthcare sectors, which included discouraging early retirement, reforming the disability benefit system, and introducing more market incentives into the Dutch healthcare system.

D66 is a vocal and consistent supporter of European federalisation, proposing a deepening of European cooperation on issues such as the environment, immigration policy, and foreign policy.

 With regard to immigration, the party is in favour of welcoming asylum seekers from war-torn countries, as well as raising public investment in integration and education courses for immigrants.

The strategic situation of the Green-Left (GL)

GreenLeft (Groenlinks) is a progressive environmentalist party that was established in 1989 as a merger of four left-wing parties, including both communists and radical Christians. The party achieved its best-ever election result in 2017, winning 14 seats in parliament. It is now the largest left-wing party in parliament and proclaimed it was eager to enter into a coalition government for a first time in their history. However, with the entire left in shatters, this may prove a too daunting task.

GroenLinks argues that ecological stability has priority over economic growth, and therefore measures should be taken to limit pollution, resource depletion, and climate change, even if this has negative economic implications in the short term. Realising that a sustainable economy would limit material consumption, the party has called for redistribution of income to compensate the worst off. It also strives for reform of the welfare state to ensure its financial sustainability, for an open culture, and for increased European cooperation. The rising importance of immigration issues did not transform GroenLinks’ position on the matter – the Greens are one of the most consistent proponents of multiculturalism, against the mono-cultural stances of right-wing populists.

The strategic situation of the Socialist Party (SP)

The SP was founded in the 1970s on the basis of a Maoist-inspired platform, but only entered parliament in 1994 with 1.3 per cent of the vote. By this time, the SP had gradually moved away from its communist roots and could better be described as a radical left-wing protest party. At the end of the 1990s, the party further moderated its ideological profile and tempered its hostility towards the political establishment, even though the SP did not completely lose its protest image. The party’s best electoral result was recorded in 2006, when it won over 16 per cent of the vote and became the third largest party in parliament. Four years later, the party received just fewer than 10 per cent of the vote. Although for months the SP appeared to be heading towards an historic victory in the 2012 elections, fierce competition with the Social Democrats resulted in an actual moderate vote loss compared to 2010 when the votes were counted: the SP received 9.6 per cent of the vote.

The socialists are stringent defenders of universal welfare provision and rally against the marketization of healthcare. They have consistently voted against any welfare retrenchment proposals in parliament and are opposed to deductibles in healthcare insurance. The SP favours further tax increases for the highest incomes as means of increasing public investment in the education, healthcare and public housing sectors.

In the early 1980s, the SP supported anti-immigration policies, and published a brochure urging immigrants (gastarbeiders, ‘guest workers’) to choose between adopting the Dutch nationality or to return to their country of origin. In order to appeal to a broader left-wing electorate, the SP clearly moderated its position and showed relatively little concern for immigration in more recent years. Nevertheless, the SP has remained wary of labour migration from Central and Eastern Europe, fearing the social consequences of a more competitive labour market and the depression of wages. Domestically, the party is a defender of ethnic minority rights, emphasising on the equal treatment of all Dutch nationals, regardless of their ethnic or religious background. The socialists are proponents of guaranteeing generous aid for developing countries and are therefore opposed to any proposals for cuts in that direction. 

Although the SP did not go too far in its criticism of the European Union, the party can certainly be characterised as Eurosceptic. The SP voiced its concerns about the alleged neo-liberal character of the EU and feared a ‘race to the bottom’ where working conditions and social policies were concerned.

Methodology and Authors

How were the graphs created?

The graph above displays the positions of Dutch parties on a two-dimensional spatial map, constructed on the basis of 30 salient issue statements related to strongly relevant policy issues in the current political debate. The most salient issues were selected by a team of academics and experts, based on a close examination of the parties' platforms and political (media) discourse. Each of the statements pertains to a policy proposal that can be framed as either “left-“ or “right-wing”, “libertarian” or “authoritarian”. The statement answers are 5-point scales with answer categories ranging from “completely disagree”, to “disagree” to “neutral” to “agree” to “completely agree”. The positions of parties on these statements are coded in accordance with their official stances on the issues, as expressed by their published policies, campaign documents and media appearances. All major parties were also asked to position themselves and provide excerpts from their party manifesto or other formal documentation. These self-placements of parties were subsequently compared with the expert coding. Discrepancies were communicated to parties over several rounds until there was full clarity and authorisation of their final issue positions.

The spatial map is constructed on the basis of the aggregate positions of the parties on the two dimensions (the left-right dimension and the libertarian-authoritarian dimension). The precise party position is located in the centres of the ellipses. The ellipses represent the standard deviations of the party answers to all statements used to construct each axis. Thus, parties in favour of both left- and right-wing policy proposals have a wider ellipse on the left-right axis; parties in favour of both libertarian and authoritarian policy proposals have a lengthier ellipse on the libertarian-libertarian axis.

Who realised the Strategy debates France 2017?

Text and Mapping:

André Krouwel - Scientific director - Kieskompas BV & University of Amsterdam

Oscar Moreda Laguna - General operations manager - Kieskompas BV

Yordan Kutiyski - Analyst - Kieskompas BV

Project coordination:

Oliver Philipp - Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung

Arne Schildberg - Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung

Strategiedebatten Niederlande

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