On Wednesday 17 March, the Netherlands went to the polls. The sitting prime minister, Mark Rutte, and his right-wing liberal party, VVD, won by a large margin. Together with the other liberal party, D66, he will now begin the process of forming his fourth government. The resounding defeat of the ‘left’ parties shows an urgent need for a class alternative to Rutte.
The VVD even succeeded in gaining a seat since the last elections, reaching 34 (22 percent). To superficial observers, this might seem incredible. The third Rutte government resigned a couple of weeks ago, because of a scandal surrounding childcare benefits. There were ‘anti-curfew’ riots raging only a few weeks ago.
And yet, Rutte will have another term, having already been Prime Minister for 10 years. Of the current prime ministers of EU member states, only Merkel has ruled longer. During his next term, Rutte will probably become the longest-ruling Dutch prime minister ever, breaking the record set by Ruud Lubbers in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Rutte’s government resigned and went to the polls in order to recoup legitimacy, precisely because it was rocked by scandal. Rutte will present this result as a vote of confidence in his government. But he was only able to pull off this manoeuvre because of the lack of any serious opposition from the so-called ‘left’.
Back to the ‘old normal’?
This outcome is linked to Rutte’s role as Prime Minister during the pandemic, as the supposed ‘statesman’ who would lead the Dutch nation back to the old ‘normality’. Of course, the ‘old normal’ was far from perfect in any sense. But the years 2017-19 were nevertheless years of relative economic growth, and unemployment figures were around 3 percent. For many, the pandemic is viewed simply as an interruption of normality, masking the fact that a global economic crisis was already developing in late 2019.
As several political analysts have stated, there has been a certain ‘rallying around the flag’ taking place. In times of crisis, these analysts explain, people often seek protection from their leaders, who stand to gain popularity as a result. It is true to a certain extent, that the start of the pandemic saw a certain mood of national unity, as millions of people instinctively sought a collective way out of the crisis. But it is also true that following this brief period, an increasing mood of opposition has been gaining ground as it has become clear that governments around the world merely care about the bottom line of their capitalist masters, rather than the well being of society.
In reality, there is no ‘national unity’ and we are not all in the same boat, as we have been told. The interests of the rich and powerful are directly opposed to the interests of the working class and the poor, and the pandemic has been the sharpest reflection of this. So if this has not found an expression in the Dutch elections, it is solely due to the conduct of the ‘left’ opposition parties, PvdA (Labour) and GroenLinks (Green Left), who continuously called for ‘national unity’ and refrained from any serious criticisms of the government. This so-called ‘national unity’ has only been made possible thanks to the ‘left’ opposition and the trade union leaders, who raise the scarecrow of the far-right parties as the only alternative to this unity.
Now that the vaccination programme has finally taken off (after a very slow start), and there is talk of partially reopening the economy in the summer, the VVD has adopted the perspective of a post-corona period of economic growth. In line with the worldwide trend of using public money to keep the economy afloat, and allowing national debts to rise, the VVD is distancing itself from severe austerity in the short term. The party is even advocating a slight rise in the minimum wage and ‘strong government’ – measures that it hopes will boost consumption.
Behind these seemingly philanthropic measures lurks cynical calculation on the part of the ruling class. A boost in internal consumption is necessary for Dutch capitalism. Exports equate to about 80 percent of Dutch GDP. Dutch capitalism cannot export its way out of the crisis when there are worldwide restrictions due to lockdowns. But the means exist to sustain this spending for a while, via state intervention. When the coronavirus pandemic hit the Netherlands a year ago, public debt was below 50 percent, there was an annual trade surplus of around 10 percent, and interest rates were negative. Public debt could possibly be raised to 80 or 100 percent, but this also has its limits. Klaas Knot, the director of the Dutch National Bank, warned that lavish spending should be cut back immediately after the pandemic ends.
All this is a break from the ‘normal situation’. The VVD was traditionally the most pro-market, pro-austerity party in the Netherlands. The CDA (Christian Democrats), and their leader Wopke Hoekstra, tried to take over this role of the austerity party. But Hoekstra’s pleas not to raise the minimum wage; to cut back on the unemployment allowance; and to create ‘more permanent jobs’ by making permanent jobs more precarious, did not receive much support in these uncertain times. The CDA, once the main party of the Dutch bourgeoisie, lost another four seats and ended up with a total of only 15 (10 percent).
The second winner of the election was the ‘progressive’ liberal party, D66, which took 23 seats (15 percent). Its leader, Sigrid Kaag, successfully rallied the ‘progressive’ and liberal vote around her party. In most of the big cities she managed to win with a clear pro-EU and ‘green liberal’ programme. D66 ended up as the biggest party among young voters. Kaag as an individual played an important role in this success. D66 campaigned in a style reminiscent of Hillary Clinton, presenting Kaag as a ‘politically strong woman’.
Defeats for the ‘left’
Meanwhile, the so-called ‘left’ parties lost seats to D66, unable as they were to present a clear alternative and to differentiate themselves from the ‘progressive liberalism’ of the latter. Jesse Klaver, the leader of GroenLinks, tries to present himself as a left-wing opposition leader with radical ideas. But at the same time, he tries to be a most loyal pillar of support for Rutte, and has made all kinds of deals with the government.
The ‘Klaver-effect’ that made GroenLinks popular a couple of years ago – and which showed a seeking for something new among the youth – has now worn off. GroenLinks suffered its biggest defeat in Amsterdam, where it is the largest party in the local government’s ruling coalition, and where it has instituted all kinds of unpopular measures. These include huge increases in parking rates – a measure supposedly about ‘ecological sustainability’. GroenLinks is now down to nine seats (5.1 percent).
The PvdA (Labour Party) had hoped to recover from its massive defeat in 2017, which was the result of participating in the austerity policies of the second Rutte government. Yet the party only managed to secure nine seats (5.7 percent), receiving more than half of its support from voters over the age of 50. This used to be the traditional party of the working class, but decades of degeneration have led to its current sorry state.
The left-reformist Socialist Party (SP), which should have been in a position to profit from the discontent with Rutte over cutbacks in healthcare, the childcare benefit scandal and other scandals, failed to capitalise and actually lost seats. With only nine seats (6 percent), it has regressed to 2002 levels. Its membership figures have also decreased to 2002 levels. Although the party had some good political positions and played an important role in bringing the childcare benefit scandal to light, the SP did not present a bold programme that could inspire and mobilise large sections of the working class and left-wing youth around a positive campaign for a socialist alternative.
The SP’s campaign was neither fish-nor-fowl: on the one hand, the party presented a left-reformist economic programme, mostly aimed at the poorest and most destitute layers of the working class. On the other, it had a more conservative position on raising the minimum wage than the Federation of Dutch Trade Unions (FNV). The party leadership also failed to rule out entering a coalition government with Rutte’s party VVD.
Furthermore, the party leadership made concessions to nationalism in an attempt to win back workers from the far-right parties. It wanted to restrict labour migration (supposedly to stop migrants from being exploited), and presented a confused, nationalist opposition to the EU. It spoke about breaking up the euro currency and demanding more ‘national sovereignty’. This policy did nothing to win over far-right voting workers, whilst it simultaneously repelled left-wing youth.
We can see how the support given by GroenLinks and PvdA to previous Rutte governments, and the fact that the SP was angling for participation in the next one, didn’t help these parties in the slightest. Taken together, their support represents a historical low point, with D66 having absorbed a significant chunk of their votes.
But one indication that there is a yearning for a left-wing alternative, particularly among the youth, was the breakthrough made by a new party, BIJ1 (meaning ‘together’), which won its first seat. This party was set up to fight against all forms of discrimination. In the last few years, it has attracted a lot of former SP members and other left-wing activists looking for a new home. This is reflected in its electoral programme, which is a confused and eclectic mix of liberalism, identity politics and certain socialist positions around nationalisations, planning and workers’ control.
As the only party in the national parliament taking a clear stand against racism and national chauvinism – albeit mixed up with confused identity politics – with its new national profile BIJ1 could gain an echo among a layer of youth. Its presence inside parliament could also put pressure on other ‘left’ parties. But there should be no illusions in BIJ1 in its current state. As long as its leadership remains strongly influenced by postmodern identity politics and ‘intersectionality’, it will not be able to find a bridge to the mass of workers.
All in all, the left’s embracing of bourgeois politics and ‘national unity’, has left a huge vacuum, which as usual is being filled by the right wing. Thus, the largest so-called ‘opposition’ will be that of the far-right demagogue, Geert Wilders. Although his PVV lost votes and became the third party, with 17 seats (10.9 percent), it proved to be the best able to channel the discontent with Rutte’s policies using a toxic mixture of (demagogic) criticism of healthcare cuts, and of the lack of support for small businesses compared to big business, combined with the most extreme racism. The far-right Forum for Democracy (FvD), and a split off from that party also took 7.4% together on the basis of similar far-right demagoguery.
Don’t mourn, organise!
A large part of the labour movement and the ‘left’ is exceedingly depressed and pessimistic. This is understandable. After all, many people hoped for a different outcome after ten years of the Rutte government. However, this does not justify the cynical and pessimistic attitude promoted by leading ‘left’ activists, that nothing will ever change. Nor does it excuse the absurd notion that the Dutch population are inherently conservative and racist, etc. These same complaints about the ‘nature’ of the Dutch people already existed more than a century ago and have been falsified by history on multiple occasions.
Mark Rutte managed to win by presenting himself as the great statesman of the corona-era, because most of the so-called ‘left’ supported him! A successful vaccination programme and reopening of the economy could lead to a honeymoon period for the new government, which will probably be a broad ‘national unity’ government of the VVD, D66 and two smaller parties (probably the CDA and one of the so-called left parties).
The international situation, however, is extremely poor for export-based Dutch capitalism, and there are many economic problems that will unfold in the years to come. At some point, the new Rutte government will resort to austerity. Then, the question will be posed: who will pay for the crisis: the capitalists or the working class? Developments like these are what change consciousness.
It is clear that what is lacking is a socialist party of the working class, one that can pose an alternative to Mark Rutte on the basis of a class programme. As long as a clear class alternative is absent, we will continue to hear about the so-called ‘culture war’ between conservatives and progressives. This creates confusion among the workers and delays the formation of class consciousness. However, eventually, class consciousness will develop, as the history of all countries (including the Netherlands) teaches us.
The new Rutte government is not going to enjoy a prolonged period of stability. In the midst of the deepest crisis in the history of capitalism, it will find itself forced to attack the working class. New crises, scandals and shocks will undermine the foundations of this government and will force millions of workers to seek the road to a clear revolutionary alternative.
It is the task of the Marxists in the labour movement to prepare for this. We are the only optimistic tendency in the Dutch movement. The decrepit condition of the ‘left’ should be an extra motivation for us to organise and prepare for the great events of the future. Join us and fight for socialist revolution!