Populism the Dutch way: a double interview

The Dutch elections quickly disappeared from the first pages of international newspapers and from the debates of the prime time TV shows: the populist wave of Geert Wilders has not swept away democracy, and the country is already focused on other issues such as banning hidden costs on concerts tickets.  However, the government coalition is not formed yet, and the political consequences of the elections which were held last March are still unclear.

POP asked Matthijs Rooduijn and Stijn van Kessel – both Dutch experts on populism, see profiles after the interview – to explain what is going on in the country and what should we expect next. Do you want to know who won the elections, which coalitions might be formed, who is Jesse Klaver, and mostly, which one is the funniest Dutch political party?

Keep reading and enjoy.


POP) Who won the Dutch elections: Rutte, Klaver (in the tweet above with Christiane Amanpour from CNN) or Wilders?

Matthijs Rooduijn: To some extent they all did. But to some extent all of them also lost. Rutte won because he made his conservative liberal VVD the biggest party in parliament and because his party won many more seats than predicted by the polls. Yet the other part of the story is that the VVD lost 8 seats (from 41 to 33). Klaver won because his party, GL, increased its number of seats from 4 to 14. Compared to the previous elections, Wilders also won seats (5 of them). Moreover, he has had a huge impact on the discourse of other parties: most mainstream parties have become increasingly nationalist. However, he was much less successful than the polls predicted a couple of weeks/months before the elections.

Stijn van Kessel: I don’t think it is very accurate to speak of a single winner, as Dutch party politics is very fragmented (especially after this election), and a ‘winner’ can never govern alone. I would also not frame the Dutch election as a race between persons either, although leadership certainly matters.

The VVD lost a considerable number of seats, but can be satisfied particularly when we compare its result to the seats that the beating coalition partner PvdA has received. Its result was, moreover, better than the previous opinion polls suggested. It is also worth mentioning that its support in the previous election of 2012 was ostensibly inflated due to the horse-race back then between VVD and PvdA.

The PVV is not a genuine winner although it somewhat increased its support. The huge international hype around Wilders was quite remarkable, and can mainly be explained by considering the context of Brexit, Trump and the upcoming elections in France and Germany. But Wilders has been around for over 10 years already and his results are fairly ‘normal’ compared with the 2010 and 2012 results.

GroenLinks has seen a historical win indeed, but its chances of entering a government now seem to have disappeared.

POP) Jesse Klaver, the charismatic 30-year-old GroenLinks leader (below in a tweet to sustain a campaign in favor of sick children), is more a Bernie Sanders or Justin Trudeau type-of-politician?

MR: Difficult. A little bit of both. He is more strongly left-wing than his predecessors. However, I would say that he is less radical left than Sanders, but also less liberal than Trudeau.


POP) How many parties will compose the government coalition? Will it be stable? After several months of negotiations the situation seems to be more uncertain than ever.

SvK: At least four are required for a majority coalition. It is hard to get around a coalition including VVD, CDA, D66, which are not that far apart on socio-economic issues. Groenlinks seems out after several rounds of talks which broke down on the basis of the issue of asylum seekers, regarding which Groenlinks takes a more welcoming stance. The smaller Christian Union (CU) is an alternative partner to forge a coalition with just a small majority in the lower house. This option now seems likely, despite the fact that the culturally liberal D66 and the conservative CU disagree on moral-cultural and other issues.

Coalitions with a relatively large amount of parties may be more difficult to manage, but Dutch governments are characterised by detailed coalition agreements in which parties agree beforehand on the most important parts of the government agenda.

MR: At least four. An attempt at forming a government coalition with VVD, CDA, D66 and GL failed. They are now trying the option with the smaller Christian Union (CU). This attempt will most likely be successful. However, there exist some pronounced differences between these parties – especially regarding immigration, the EU, and ethical issues. My own preference would be a minority cabinet (only CDA, VVD and D66), because that would imply much more transparent negotiations with other parties. But that option is not very likely because most parties do not like it very much…

POP) There will be new elections like in Spain and Greece to break the deadlock?

SvK: Unlike Spain and Greece, coalition government is the historical norm in the Netherlands. So parties are used to striking deals and making compromises, even if the formation puzzle is complicated.

MR: I don’t think so, but you never know…

POP) Twenty-eight parties participated in last elections. Which one was the funniest or most unusual?


From NU.nl

MR: GeenPeil. The idea was that MP’s of this party would not present their own ideas. MP’s would simply translate the will of their supporters (who would vote online for all proposals). In other words: there would not be an ideology or program whatsoever. The party didn’t make it into parliament.

SvK: I still think the fact that we have a reasonably successful Party for the Animals (represented in parliament since 2006) is a rather striking feature of Dutch politics. But Dutch politics could still be enriched with the type of candidates you see in British general elections, such as Lord Buckethead (See: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/09/lord-buckethead-elmo-and-mr-fish-finger-a-very-british-election), who recently declared that ‘A pain au chocolat could negotiate Brexit better than Theresa May’ (tweet below).


POP) How much ‘to the right’ were mainstream parties forced to move in order to take voters from Wilders?

MR: Pretty far. The Christian Democrats wanted to forbid the funding of mosques and Islamic organisations by foreign governments. The Conservative Liberals wanted to deprive those who have participated in a terrorist organisation of their Dutch nationality. The social democrats talked about “progressive patriotism”.

Svk: Both the VVD and CDA played the nationalist card in this campaign. Notably, Prime Minister and VVD leader Mark Rutte wrote an open letter in major newspapers lamenting the abuse of liberty by people with a migration background. He urged those people to accept Dutch values (to “act normal”) or to leave the country. The campaign of the CDA is also largely centred on the preservation of Dutch norms and values. One proposal introduced by leader Sybrand van Haersma Buma was to teach the national anthem to immigrants as part of their ‘integration course’ and to have it sung by children at school. Similar symbols and acts of patriotism have been prominent in PVV manifestos for years. Buma also called the cultural integration of minorities a failure after the diplomatic incident with Turkey days prior to the election.

POP) What can other mainstream parties learn from the Dutch elections about how to deal with populist parties?

SvK: Under certain conditions it may not hurt centre-right parties to copy parts of the culturally conservative agenda of populist radical right competitors. But then it should be remembered that the VVD and CDA have not performed that great themselves (CDA’s result was second worst in history), and the PVV’s somewhat disappointing result probably also has to do with its own lacklustre campaign. Above all, centre-right parties should ask themselves whether they want to go down the route of cultural conservatism and hostility towards multiculturalism.

MR: That they might win some voters back by incorporating nationalist elements into their own rhetoric. But then, eventually, this strategy leads to nationalism and nativism becoming more generally accepted.


POP) Who is ‘better’ in using twitter: Trump or Wilders?

MR: Wilders is much less impulsive. He thinks carefully about every tweet (below). Trump seems to tweet whatever comes to mind (above his instant-classic tweet ‘Trump vs CNN’). If creating chaos is his aim, this might well be a good strategy. I do not know who is ‘better’ at using Twitter. Yet what is interesting is that Twitter fits well in a strategy employed by many populists: to communicate with ‘the people’ as directly as possible.

SvK: What Matthijs says…


POP) Is Nexit ever going to be seriously considered in the Netherlands?

MR: Not anytime soon. A large majority of the Dutch does not want to leave the EU.

SvK: A clear majority of the population and almost all serious parties are against Nexit. It’s just not something that is on the agenda.

POP) Wilder’s mother came from Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world. Does he ever mention his personal experiences and family story?

MR: No. Never.

SvK: The main personal experience he mentions is the fact that he lives under constant protection – ‘Marked for Death’ is the tile of his 2012 book. Obviously, he uses this to substantiate his warnings about Islam’s violent nature.

POP) Is there a link between bizarre haircuts and populist leaders?

MR: Yes. But correlation is not causation ;-D

Leaders of these parties seem to be more often than leaders of mainstream parties rather outspoken personalities. That might explain their peculiar haircuts…

SvK: Agreed.

Stijn van Kessel

Stijn van Kessel

Stijn van Kessel is Lecturer in Politics at Loughborough University, UK. His main research interests are populism and the discourse, voters and electoral performance of populist (radical right) parties in Europe. He published his monograph Populist Parties in Europe: Agents of Discontent? with Palgrave Macmillan in 2015. In addition, he has published in edited books and journals including Government and Opposition, Journal of European Integration, and the Journal of Political Ideologies.

Matthijs Rooduijn

Matthijs Rooduijn is a political sociologist at Utrecht University, where he works as an Assistant Professor. His research focuses on the rise of populist and radical parties. He is, together with Bert Bakker and Gijs Schumacher, co-director of the Hot Politics Lab – a research group combining experiments, physiological measurement and automated text analysis to analyze the role of emotions, personality and language in politics.

His work is published, among others, in the European Journal of Political Research, Comparative Political Studies, European Union Politics, Party Politics, and West European Politics. Together with Tjitske Akkerman and Sarah de Lange he recently co-edited the book Radical Right-Wing Populist Parties in Western Europe (Routledge).

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