Carry on, Prime Minister!

Carry on, Prime Minister!

03/2021  | Reading time: 10 minutes

With the victory of his party at the general elections last week, Mark Rutte is expected to lead the next government of the Netherlands and is, thereby, on the way to becoming the longest-serving prime minister of the country. What might be the reasons for his success, and how the political landscape will look like after the election? The following article aims to explain some of the background to the political developments in the Western European country and argues that Rutte’s pragmatic approach, resembling very much Angela Merkel’s strategy, paid off well during the elections last week. Despite the crumbling pandemic policies and the scandals of the last years, this way of making politics and the population’s desire for stability during these tumultuous times has arguably allowed Rutte and his party to appeal to constituencies traditionally opting for different parties.

“Angela Merkel meets Mark Rutte in The Hague this Wednesday. One of them is a pragmatic, consensus-driven leader . . . the other is the German chancellor.” This citation from the Financial Times from a few years ago facetiously yet aptly summarises the strategy of the Dutch liberal politician that helps him achieve good election results consistently. With his pragmatic approach, the Netherlands has experienced a period of political stability, as Mark Rutte and his party have been governing the country for more than ten years now.

Although it seems to be an exaggeration to speak about the “Merkelisation” of the Dutch politics (as the journalist of the cited article did), it is quite clear that Rutte’s centrism, to a certain extent resembling Angela Merkel’s so-called “die Mitte” (i.e., the middle or the centre) strategy, paid off well during the elections last week. The incumbent prime minister’s conservative–liberal party, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie, VVD) even gained an extra seat compared to the previous ballots in 2017 and, for the fourth time in a row, became the biggest party in the House of Representatives (Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal). With this result (thirty-four seats out of the one hundred and fifty), Rutte is expected to lead the country’s next government and is, thereby, on its way to becoming the longest-serving prime minister in the Netherlands, breaking the record of Ruud Lubbers, a Christian Democratic PM between 1982 and 1994.

Merkel and Rutte in a meeting during the coronavirus pandemic in summer 2020
Source: @RegSprecher (Steffen Seibert)/Twitter

Manager Rutte

While the Netherlands is generally considered to be a particularly liberal country, and, hence, it seems quite obvious that liberal political formations play an important role in its political scene, it was almost a hundred years ago when the last liberal politician, namely, the non-party liberal Cort van der Linden, had been appointed prime minister before Mark Rutte took up the reins in 2010. Although the VVD participated in many cabinets in the past, its popular leaders during the previous decades, such as Edzo Toxopeus, Hans Wiegel, Ed Nijpels, and the notorious Frits Bolkenstein, could never convert their election results into a prime ministership.

The above-mentioned van der Linden and the current prime minister, however, have more in common than their fundamental beliefs, as both had, or have, to serve in a period of crisis with serious social and economic issues to be solved and, therefore, a need for strong political measures. Van der Linden, one of Rutte’s self-declared role models, had to overcome a number of social problems (which he managed quite well by the Pacification of 1917) and was responsible for securing the neutrality of his country during World War I. Similarly, Rutte also has to face major socio-economic problems and to steer his country through troubled times, this time for the pandemic.

Despite its ineptness in pandemic-mitigation policies and, most notably, the government’s tardiness, Rutte’s popularity further increased, and his cabinet’s strategy had a very high domestic approval rating. It was even expected that his third executive (just like his previous ones) will serve out its full term in office, which is a rather unusual, barely seen case in the country’s post–World War II political history. In the end, the child-benefit scandal in January—between 2013 and 2019, authorities falsely accused families of committing fraud and demanded a refund of them—prevented the government from pulling off this feat and, thus, led to the cabinet’s resignation. Moreover, there was unrest a few weeks later, when the government imposed a curfew and further restrictions due to the rising number of infections.

Certainly, the popularity of Rutte’s party dropped in the weeks prior to the elections, but it turned out that he and his party still had the confidence of many voters. Therefore, the main takeaway message from the Dutch election was that voters want to ensure stability by re-electing their incumbent leader. Even though the government’s approval ratings are rather mixed, and despite its many problems and scandals in the past (like the one around its dividend tax plan in 2018), Rutte’s centrist pragmatism found sympathetic ears in his country.

Besides, Rutte is considered to be a consensus builder, a characteristic which is not always noticeable in his appearances as the leader of the Frugal Four in the European political arena but, nevertheless, fits very well into the Dutch way of doing politics, often referred to as the polder model, that is based on discussion and consensus. This alliance- and consensus-building attitude, the political experience he accumulated, and the leadership he shows during crises seems to have given Rutter a high degree of confidence.

However, political preferences are not always and solely determined by objective factors and interests—subjective elements like sentiments and impressions could also play an important role at the ballot box. As cliché as it might sound, moderateness and sobriety have long been part of the (stereotypic) perception of the Dutch people. Rutte’s lifestyle and habitus, therefore, resonates well with the Dutch subconscious and, in a way, may have helped him to win the “hearts and minds” of the voters. The fact that he owns an ordinary apartment in The Hague, drives a second-hand car and mostly commutes by his bike, uses an old keypad Nokia mobile phone, enjoys the writings of Thomas Mann, listens to classical music, and still teaches in a secondary school despite his many political obligations made him a likeable phenomenon even for voter groups not necessarily subscribing to his policies. Also, this moderate image fits very well into the well-established tradition of sober Dutch prime ministers starting with Willem Drees, the long-time prime minister after World War II, whose legendarily simple lifestyle fascinated—at least so goes the story—even the US Marshall Plan delegation.

The puritan Mark Rutte on two wheels and with an apple
Source: @KvanOosterom/Twitter

Some (further) takeaways from the elections

With his political style, Rutte—mockingly referred to as “Teflon Mark,” for criticism tends to roll off him without causing substantial damages to his image—could successfully occupy the middle of the political spectrum. The resemblances between Germany’s Angel Merkel and him are, however, even more striking when it comes to the effects of his politics, namely, that scandals and censure tend to harm rather his coalition partners’ than his or his party’s popularity.

Some argue that, despite the acclaim Rutte receives, the main reason for his enduring success is the lack of prominent figures in all other parties. Consequently, the most interesting issue during the campaign was to see how the centre of the political spectrum (and the coalition partners of the VVD), namely, the Christian Democratic Appeal (Christen-Democratisch Appèl, CDA), the Christian Union (Christen Unie, CU), and the Democrats 66 (Democraten 66, D66) wanted to (re)position themselves to avoid being in the shadow of the prime minister.

In this regard, the biggest surprise was the D66’s exceptionally good performance. The left-wing liberal party, led by Foreign Trade Minister Sigrid Kaag, gained five extra seats and is now the second-strongest party in the legislative assembly. German media even describe Kaag, whose dance on the table after the exit polls had been announced went viral on social media, as the first woman in the Netherlands who has a realistic chance to become prime minister one day.

The mood during the election night was quite different at the headquarters of the other major coalition partner, the CDA, where it has yet again become obvious that those days when the Christian Democrats (and the Social Democrats) could dominate Dutch politics are long gone, as, for many reasons, the two party’s traditional constituencies are drastically shrinking. Since the last victory of Jan Peter Balkenende in 2007, his party has been unable to achieve its earlier electoral results and, thus, to regain a leading position. While the party leader and Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra was even considered to be a serious challenger for the premiership, he did not manage to win popular support, and his party lost four seats.

Question time in the Dutch second chamber, i.e., the House of Representatives is about to start.
Source: Tweede Kamer/Twitter

Traditionally, opinion polls give Geert Wilders’s right-wing party, the Party for Freedom (Partij van de Vijheid, PVV) quite a high approval rating (sometimes even showing it to be a likely winner), but its popularity always tends to melt away to some degree until the election day, which happened to it this time, too. In addition, the party has to share the right-wing anti‐establishment political spectrum with groupings like the Forum for Democracy (Forum voor Democratie, FvD), a young, conservative, and similarly Eurosceptic party that had won the most seats in the provincial legislative assemblies (Provinciale Staten) in 2019. However, quite recently, the FvD had to see its popularity crumbling due to the party’s virus scepticism and an anti-Semitic scandal some of its members were embroiled in. While Thierry Baudet’s party was written off after this scandal, the FvD still managed to secure eight seats, and a very recent spin-off of the party, the Right Answer 21 (Juiste Antwoord 21) also made its way into the House of Representatives with three members. This all means that, despite the quite poor results of the PvV, the Right in the Netherlands emerged stronger from the election.

Looking at the other side of the political spectrum, last week’s election once again proved that voters seem to have lost confidence in classic left-wing parties. The Labour Party (Partij van de Arbeid, PvdA), which was one of the strongest political forces in the Netherlands, stabilised itself at a rather low level. The Green Party (GroenLinks), with Jesse Klaver, the Dutch Justin Trudeau, who was also seen as the next Dutch prime minister once, and the Socialist Party (Socialistische Partij, SP), with Lilian Marijnissen, the daughter of the long-time leader of the party, Jan Marijnissen, have reached an even worse result and a historic low. Together they did not get more than twenty-six seats. (At their peak, they fluctuated between fifty and sixty-five seats.) More importantly, they were unable to win even in their traditional strongholds and were rather unsuccessful in the large cities.

Coalition negotiations in the Netherlands have traditionally been long and complicated. Nevertheless, forming a coalition would probably be easier with this result than in 2017, when even the previous record of the country (225 days) was broken. The question now is whether a restart is possible for the current team, which has almost eighty seats in the House of Representatives but does not have a majority in the Senate (Eerste Kamer der Staten-Generaal), a problem Rutte’s third cabinet also had to face. The prime minister said coalition talks would likely start with the D66 and the CDA. If this scenario does not play out, Rutte should achieve a majority with a more “colourful” and, thus, more fragile coalition.

With his international appearances and policies, Rutte may not be the most beloved European politician, and he is obviously not uncontested in his own country. Yet, his pragmatism, his well-constructed image as a kind of crisis manager, and his charisma (as Max Weber would call it) constantly allow him to win constituencies traditionally opting for other parties and to secure its position in the centrum of the political spectrum. On the other hand, social changes that are very much underway in the Netherlands are responsible for restructuring and fragmenting the rest of the political landscape: this time, seventeen out of the thirty-seven competing parties made it to the legislative assembly, including some new minor anti-establishment parties that are organised around specific issues. The analysis of these changes and processes and their ramifications for the future political structure of the country should be, however, a topic of a different blog entry.


The opening pic is by Zairon, from Wikimedia Commons, and licenced under CC BY-SA 4.0

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