The voters of the Netherlands went to the polls today and delivered a result that is very confusing to anyone trying to read off the implications for the rest of Western Europe. They’ve deserted the ruling Christian Democrats for other right-wing parties, while Labour’s vote held steady.

While many commentators in the country had argued that fractious debates around immigration and multiculturalism had taken a back seat to economic concerns arising from the 2008 global crisis, significant gains by Geert Wilders suggested that concerns about these matters were far from over.

The PVV more than doubled its representation in the 150-seat parliament, going from nine to 23 seats, the largest gain by any party. The result allowed them to overtake the Christian Democrats, whose vote was halved from 40 seats to 20 and making them the third largest party in the Netherlands.

The two parties fighting it out to from government are the market-liberal VVD — hitherto a junior partner in the Christian Democrat-led Balkenende government and Labour, which surprised commentators by holding its 30 seats, losing only one or two.

The results suggest that while there was movement between parties within the left and right blocs, there was little cross-over between them. Aside from the Christian Democrats, the other major loser was the solidly left Socialist Party, which lost 11 of its 25 seats, much of it back to Labour, as left supporters voted tactically to try and prevent the VVD from forming government.

However, at least a a quarter of the SPs lost votes leaked to the right-wing PVV, a familiar pattern in European elections.

The result represents a shift in political blocs — but not as dramatic a realignment as had been anticipated months ago, where it was thought that the PVV might gain enough seats to be the largest single party, and thus form government.

Such a move would have represented the first time that one of the new anti-immigration populist parties had been able to form government in Western Europe.

As it turned out, right-wing voters eager to dump the Christian Democrats went largely to a party promising to combine fiscal restraint, with a characteristically liberal Dutch take on civil liberties.

Thus the result is not The Nightmare Scenario many were predicting, but it is pretty bad for the Christian Democrats who have dominated Dutch politics for decades. Though they have had a collapse in their vote before, the rise of other right parties makes it less likely that such a vote will eventually return to them.

Such a shift has been occurring to a lesser degree in Germany and as well represents a quiet transformation of the European right, which was always less enamoured of classical liberal mantras than its Anglosphere counterparts.

For continental Europe, Christian democracy was a form of social politics drawing more on ideas of community, reciprocity and a social contract than on the atomised individualism and market centralism of the anglo parties.

Formed in the post-WW2 period, and drawing on liberal protestant theology and Catholic social doctrine, Christian democracy was primarily about forestalling the challenge of socialism by providing an alternative account of the social whole, and where-from its legitimacy derived.

That commanding political power is now being lost — to market liberal parties on the one hand and xenophobic nativist parties on the other not only because the idea of a religiously grounded communal life is fading, but also because the social class that it served is breaking apart.

Thus, the VVD increasingly appeals to the winners in the new globalised Netherlands professionals, private sector owners and managers, technocrats and the like — while the PVV is the party, in an utterly familiar process, for those who think (correctly or otherwise) that they are getting the sharp end of the clog.

Small businesspeople, tradies, village dwellers, disturbed either by the reality or the image of Muslim immigration (who represent 5% of the current Dutch population) flock to it. Many of them are quite prosperous but what they have in common is a sense of ungrounding by the processes of globalisation and multiculturalism. The PVV’s vote in some regional areas particularly in the densely populated south was hitting 30%, making it easily the largest party in the region.

Yet despite its electoral success, the PVV is unlikely to be drawn into government (it has already been a coalition partner in one of the earlier Balkenende governments) for the simple reason that it does not have a Senate list, and has not organised one for the next election.

More likely will be a mild fiscally conservative government led by either Labour or the VVD, with the Christian Democrats as a third party. That would give them 80 seats, and the coalition could be buttressed by adding the D66 (Democrats 66), a left-liberal party of ageing hippies, formed in that heady year, and taking its name ever since.

If the VVD nosed ahead and Labour refused to serve under them, then the VVD leader Mark Rutte would be forced to draw in the PVV, with the Christian Democrats and a further right Christian Union party a pretty grim lurch to the Right for the country.

Whatever happens, it may be days before the exact seat numbers are worked out given the country’s list system. And there will be weeks of negotiation after that, before, as one journalist remarked, “a coalition has been founded on the common agreement of things they won’t do”. Will a centrist coalition put a Dutch cap on extremism? Or is the hard right Gouda to go?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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