The consequences of a political scandal, an ongoing global pandemic, an economic recession, a simmering civil unrest – any of these challenges would be a tense election campaign.
But in the run-up to this week’s national elections (COVID-19 has seen the voting spread over three days, from March 15 to 17), political parties in the Netherlands were faced with the reality that the four were happening at the same time.
Concern over ongoing scandals and social problems aside, the Dutch electorate appears to be keenly aware of the need for stability during a time of crisis that affects the whole world, not least the Netherlands.
Some, however, are concerned about the direction of the country and criticize what they see as regressive measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
In short, while the result is generally expected to be an endorsement of continuity, some see Wednesday’s pandemic survey as a baseline election for other major elections in Europe later this year.
Why did the government resign?
The resignation of a government a few months before a scheduled election would normally attract attention in normal times, much less during a national crisis.
In January, however, a scandal quickly gripped Rutte’s cabinet and former coalition partners, the Labor Party (PvdA), precipitating the fall of the government.
The “kinderopvangtoeslagaffaire”, or child benefit scandal, has been something of an open sore for the Rutte government, and one that will ultimately cost taxpayers 500 million euros in compensation to those affected by it.
Between 2013 and 2019, tax authorities wrongly accused more than 26,000 families of social fraud, demanding repayment of thousands of euros and plunging many into overwhelming debt.
Lodewijk Asscher, leader of the PvdA and Minister of Social Affairs during the period in question, resigned on January 14 after the publication of a damning parliamentary report.
Deeply divided on how to respond, Rutte’s government resigned the next day and formed an interim administration.
Will Rutte return as prime minister?
Coming to power in 2010 as lijsttrekker, the leading candidate, of the VVD party, Rutte became the first liberal prime minister in nearly a century and also the second-youngest incumbent in the country’s history.
During his decade-long tenure as prime minister, he has led the shortest government in the postwar period, as well as one of the only to have lasted his full four-year term.
“Rutte is regarded by a significant portion of the population as a good person and a good manager,” Dr. Jelle van Buuren, associate professor of politics at Leiden University, told Euronews.
Seen as personable and unassuming, choosing to cycle to work rather than being transported in a chauffeured car, Rutte’s image as a man of the people has been key to his success.
In Wednesday’s election, he hopes to project a sense of stability after nearly 11 years in office and secure a fourth term as prime minister. With the latest polls suggesting that up to one in three Dutch people will vote for VVD, he remains in a dominant position when early voting begins on Monday.
“The lack of an attractive opponent, whether in terms of parties or party leaders, is also an important part of the explanation,” van Buuren said. “Furthermore, most of the major political parties have more or less supported his policies, within the cabinet or as ‘constructive opposition.’ Attacking Rutte means attacking themselves.”
As with other figures around the world, Rutte has benefited from a pandemic rebound, being seen as a competent pair of hands during a national crisis. As such, the main opposition parties have struggled to clearly define themselves in contrast to the ruling parties.
“Other parties are voicing some criticism regarding the handling of the crisis, just as the Dutch population is becoming more critical, however, as they supported the government’s crown policies last year, they have something of a credibility problem. “said van Buuren. .
This became even more apparent when some opposition parties joined Rutte’s interim government in voting to impose a curfew, the first since World War II, to limit the spread of the virus.
While the majority of Dutch citizens supported the measure, or at least understood the reasoning, the decision to impose such a movement restriction ignited growing dissatisfaction with the current political system.
The result was the spread of resentment to the streets of towns and cities across the country in a series of riots over three nights in late January. While the situation has cooled down somewhat, police put down another anti-government protest on the eve of Sunday’s vote.
“Although the population is becoming more critical, it has not led to a significant shift in party preferences,” argues van Buuren.
Is a changing of the guard coming?
The only party that seems to advance in criticizing the government and taking advantage of social anxieties is the populist Freedom Party (PVV), led by controversial right-wing politician Geert Wilders.
“Only the Freedom Party … is attacking the VVD in the person of Rutte and accusing him of neglecting the economic and social damage due to restrictive measures, continuous curfew and other civil rights under pressure,” said van Buuren.
While support for the often controversial PVV has fluctuated dramatically in recent years, recent polls suggest it is experiencing a resurgence in the run-up to the elections.
“He is still considered a forbidden partner” for the VVD, notes van Buuren.
Rutte and Wilders had a failed period in the coalition during the first term of the first one that ended with the dissolution of the government and new elections in 2012. Rutte is unlikely to want to repeat the episode.
Before his government resigned, Rutte’s VVD party led a coalition alongside junior partners, Democrats 66 (D66), another liberal party, and the center-right Christian Union (CU).
However, it is unclear whether the outgoing coalition will survive beyond the elections.
“The parties in the current coalition … are suggesting that they will no longer cooperate with each other due to their conflicting ethical agendas,” van Buuren said. “However, that may be more of a call to action for their ranks and archives than a serious obstacle.
“A coalition with several smaller leftist parties could be an alternative, but most of these parties remember how they were punished after dealing with the VVD,” he added.
What differentiates this choice from the previous ones?
Perhaps as a result of the static political situation and a reaction to the current restrictions related to the pandemic, a record 37 parties are participating in this year’s national elections.
In a country where the 150-seat threshold for representation in the lower house of parliament is set at just 0.67 percent of the general vote, a large number of parties competing for votes is not uncommon in the Netherlands.
If current opinion polls confirm this, some 17 parties could win at least one seat, making the next parliament the most pluralistic in Dutch history.
While some, like Code Oranje (CO), whose platform includes the introduction of more forms of direct democracy, are likely to benefit from some latent anti-government sentiment to reach the threshold for the first time, it is likely that none of these small parties have problems. the majority parties, and less the VVD.
“Observers say the election campaign is on hold or in a kind of in the place: No issue other than the crown crisis has been launched successfully in terms of agenda setting, “van Buuren told Euronews.
“Some parts are presenting big issues for the future, after the current crisis, but without making much of an impression: the future of housing, social security, labor market reforms, climate change, etc.”
While some issues are gaining some traction in the final hours of the campaign, notably a developing housing crisis, the elections have essentially turned into a referendum on the short-term response to the global health crisis. .
“Some observers speculate that this is an intermediate election with a short-lived cabinet, whatever its composition,” van Buuren said. “First to deal with the crisis, and then a renewed political struggle to try to get rid of the hegemony of the VVD.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism