Is every Dutch farmer an elected official now? Not quite, but the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) secured a massive victory in last week’s provincial elections in the Netherlands. Despite the country’s farmers only making up around 1 percent of the population, it is now the largest party in every provincial legislature. These newly elected provincial legislators will in turn elect the upper chamber in May and make the BBB the largest party there, with around 17 of 75 seats.
These results represent yet another convulsion on the right of the Dutch political spectrum. It is a remarkable debut for a party that is not currently represented in the Senate, and the second time in a row that a new party has become the largest party in the Dutch Senate after the radical-right Forum for Democracy’s surprise win in 2019. BBB leader Caroline van der Plas—her first name pronounced as one would in English, which in the Netherlands is a marker of coming from the non-elite classes—founded the BBB that year in cooperation with a marketing agency for the agricultural industry. Van der Plas was the party’s sole elected official at the start of this week, having won a seat in Parliament in the 2021 general election. The party has presented itself as the voice of the forgotten man, as one does, in particular if that man (or woman) resides outside the Amsterdam-Rotterdam-The Hague-Utrecht megapolis known as the Randstad.
The party’s signature policy issue is opposition to planned curbs on nitrogen emissions. This may sound like a niche issue, but last summer was marked by widespread farmer protests against the restrictions that could count on the sympathy of significant numbers of voters, especially outside the Randstad. The urban-rural cleavage is easily visible in Wednesday’s election results. For example, the BBB finished in eighth position in the city of Utrecht, in the urban core, with 5.2 percent of the vote, while still winning the province. In contrast, the largely rural province of Overijssel gave it 31.3 percent of the vote, almost four times the vote share of its closest competitor. To be clear, there are significant numbers of voters who care passionately about environmental policy on the other side of the issue as well. While the GreenLeft and the Party for the Animals may have secured only 11.1 percent of the vote in Overijssel, they were the options selected by 31 percent of voters in Utrecht.
While most of the attention will go to the newcomers’ dramatic victory, the results have important implications for long-standing Prime Minister Mark Rutte, in office since 2010, and his centrist government as well. His coalition consists of the prime minister’s center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), the once-almighty Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), the social liberals of Democrats 66 (D66), and the do-gooder Protestants of the increasingly diverse Christian Union.
The new composition of the Senate may complicate the government’s ability to secure majorities for its legislative initiatives there, especially in areas like immigration and environmental policy. At the same time, ironically, it solidifies Rutte’s indispensable position at the heart of Dutch politics. It is harder than ever to see how anyone but him will be able to cobble together a majority in Parliament, the dominant lower chamber of the States General, in the foreseeable future. From today’s vantage point, the longest-serving prime minister in Dutch history looks like he could remain prime minister for another decade if he chooses to. After all, at only 56 years old he would be one of the younger U.S. senators.
Wednesday’s results were a shock to the political system, but not a surprise. BBB had been polling well and van der Plas is omnipresent in the Dutch media. At the same time, the most prominent representative of the previous (and third, since the turn of the century) wave of populism on the Dutch right imploded after its 2019 victories. Opposition to an association agreement between the European Union and Ukraine brought Thierry Baudet and his Forum for Democracy (FvD) party into the limelight in the marquee national conservative year of 2016 and eventual big wins in 2019 in both provincial and Senate elections.
Since 2019, the FvD has experienced constant turmoil triggered by Baudet’s stances on vaccines (opposed) and Putin (not so much), and by widespread antisemitism and white nationalism within the party. In just three years, 11 of its 12 senators, as well as almost half of its MPs and all of its elected MEPs, have left the FvD, leaving space for new entrants on the right. The Farmer-Citizen Movement has filled much of that space for now, and then seats, representing the most heavily online denizens of the alt-right, with obsessions not that different from their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. The earlier second wave of Dutch right-wing populism, driven by anti-immigrant and anti-Islam sentiment, has not gone away, either: Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom (PVV) held on to four seats in the Senate this week, speaking for voters whose personality is that they dislike Muslims.
And even the first wave retains a presence: An FvD spinoff called JA-21 will occupy three Senate seats. Its leader in Parliament was first elected in 2002 on the List Pim Fortuyn ticket, shortly after Pim Fortuyn himself was assassinated by an animal rights activist. The List Pim Fortuyn was similar in some ways to the BBB, playing off general discontent with the functioning of the public sector without alienating the center-right entirely, though it lacked the BBB’s rural orientation. JA-21 is perhaps best characterized as a party for folks who enjoy all the right-wing populist stuff, but only if served with a side of respectability politics. All these different niche flavors of right-wing populism add up, and these three parties combined will occupy nine seats in the new Dutch Senate. Add in the BBB and you are at 25, a third of the total, all to the government’s right.
The governing coalition has been reduced to 22 Senate seats. All but three of the remaining senators are to the coalition’s left. To pass legislation, the government will need to be able to count on the support of at least 16 senators in addition to their own. That is not necessarily a problem—in his 13 years as prime minister, Rutte has had a Senate majority for just two years. There are two natural paths for passing legislation in the new Senate. One is to convince the Labour Party and the GreenLeft, who will caucus together, plus one additional senator from the number of parties present under the Dutch system of proportional representation. The other one is to appeal to BBB. How much use will be made of the latter route remains to be seen and will depend on the new party’s internal stability and whether it manages or even strives to become a serious governing partner. The BBB route will be difficult if not impossible in key areas such as environmental policy or immigration.
Regardless, the results represent a further narrowing down of the broad center that has long dominated Dutch politics and a rightward drift. And that is what really drives Rutte’s strong, in fact strengthened, position. With the CDA decimated and D66 (let Labour, the GreenLeft, the Party for the Animals, the left-neoliberals of Volt or the anti-racists of Bij1) unwilling to govern with parties to the VVD’s right, there is no future coalition in sight that gets anywhere near a majority in Parliament without Rutte and the VVD. (Unless Rutte becomes secretary-general of NATO, in which case all bets are off.)
Now, to be fair, Rutte does not have an immense amount of choice in the matter, either. If this week’s results or something close to them were to materialize in the next general election, he would have to cobble together a coalition of six or so parties, and beggars can’t be choosers.
None of this is particularly helpful either for those looking for electoral competition or political accountability. Rutte’s previous government fell over a scandal at the tax agency involving the relentless hounding, partially on ethnic grounds, of low-income families that in many cases were permanently torn apart. With no alternative in sight, the same prime minister, leading the same coalition, was back in the saddle soon enough.
Earlier this week on a podcast about that sleeping giant of Dutch soccer, NAC Breda, one of the hosts insulted the players, was reprimanded by his co-host, and immediately apologized. “Just like Rutte,” was the response. As a friend joked on Election Day: The only thing Rutte hasn’t apologized for is his apology for the Dutch role in the slave trade.
That does not change the fact that this seeming inevitability is convenient to the Netherlands’ allies and partners overseas. Just as it is hard to see an alternative to Rutte, it is difficult to imagine a move away from the current strong Dutch support for strengthening the EU, for preserving the transatlantic alliance, for arming and supporting Ukraine, for LGBT rights, for the climate transition, and for international law (such as it is). The waves of populism continue to lap at the shores, but the coastline remains the same.
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