By Eelco Harteveld and Sarah de Lange
The April 2017 Dutch national elections received an unusual amount of attention from international media outlets like the New York Times, the Economist, or CNN. Many commentators regarded the elections as a first potential sign of a Patriotic Spring in which populist radical right parties would blossom. They believed that - following the Brexit and Trump victories in 2016 - anything was possible for the populist radical right. The commentators expected the Dutch populist radical right Party for Freedom (PVV) to become the largest party in parliament and speculated that its leader Geert Wilders could become the Dutch prime minister. The incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) added to the expectations by framing the elections as a run-off between his party and the PVV, or between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ populism. He described the elections as the ‘quarter finales’, and thus a trial run for the German and French elections later that year.
The accuracy of this frame should be contested. Yes, in early 2017 Geert Wilders’ party thrived in the polls, coming in first or second with around 20 per cent of the vote, depending on the polling agency. However, the PVV had reached even greater heights before the victories of Trump or Brexit, and had peaked in the polls during the refugee crisis in early 2016. During this period, roughly a quarter of Dutch citizens indicated they would support the PVV if elections were held tomorrow. Moreover, the PVV had already gained 15.5 percentage points in the 2010 elections, and its growth was thus not earthshattering.
More importantly, the most striking feature of the 2017 elections in the Netherlands was not the rise of the populist radical right, but the extremely high level of fragmentation. So, even though PVV was at times virtually the largest party in the polls, it had only the support of one in five or six voters. A substantial percentage of voters for sure, but far from a parliamentary majority. More noteworthy was the decline of the two traditionally largest parties (Christian democrats, social democrats), which both polled below 15 per cent of the vote. Hence, the PVV appeared large, particularly as various competitors were reduced to medium-sized parties.
On election day the PVV became the second-largest party in parliament with 13 per cent of the votes, trailing behind the VVD of prime minister Rutte, which gained 21 per cent of the vote. Despite coming in second, the PVV did not enter the government coalition. It was not considered a suitable party of government by the other Dutch parties based on its program and previous actions.
Consolidation and growth
Where did Wilders’ voters come from and what were there concerns? The data collected for the SCoRE project provide some first answers.
As Map 1 shows, the PVV performed particularly well in three regions: 1) the southern provinces Brabant and Limburg; 2) in municipalities surrounding Rotterdam; and 3) in the northeastern border region. Compared to 2012, its growth was especially pronounced in the latter region, which now forms one of the core strongholds for the PVV. Contrary to France, this does not mean PVV support is primarily non-urban. As Figure 1 shows, the PVV draws roughly equal support in municipalities irrespective of their level of urbanity.By linking the results to data on the characteristics of municipalities and neighborhoods collected by Statistics Netherlands, we can get a better idea of the types of areas that show strong PVV support (see Figure 2). Among the best predictors are high unemployment, a low average income, and (a decline in) the number of young people. The first two predictors suggest that the PVV thrives in economically deprived areas, the third predictor indicates that the PVV performs above average in areas that are demographically stagnating.
The share of inhabitants with a 1st or 2nd generation immigration background from non-Western countries – the group arguably most politicized by the PVV – does not predict PVV support very well. This is mostly due to the fact that PVV is also popular in many rural areas without substantial immigration. When comparing between urban districts, the PVV does perform better in districts with steep increases in the share of 1st and 2nd generation immigrants.
If we turn to the survey conducted as part of the SCoRE project, we find that PVV voters indeed worry about their immediate environment. As is the case in Germany, PVV voters experience a feeling of deprivation (see Figure 3, left). Among respondents who think the situation in their neighborhood has become worse, PVV support is twice as high as among respondents who believe it has improved or stayed the same. Concern about the direction of the country is an even stronger predictor (Figure 3, right). Among respondents who feel the country is moving in the right direction, hardly anybody voted for PVV.
PVV voters are thus pessimistic about society. What are they most concerned about? The best predictors of PVV support are respondents’ opinion about immigration (against) and political elites (critical). Euroscepticism is a slightly less important, but still substantial, predictor, followed by a preference for law and order. This is in line with the profile of the electorates of most European populist radical right parties. PVV voters do not differ from other voters in their stances on the economy or LGTB and female emancipation. The former likely reflects PVV’s mixed program on the socio-economic dimension.
Finally, we have looked at PVV voters’ previous vote choice (Figure 4). We rely on respondents who already participated in the survey company’s panel during the previous national elections in 2012. While this makes the numbers less reliable because many respondents dropped out of the panel, it is still more insightful than asking people what they voted five years ago. Figure 4 shows that about half of PVV voters also supported the PVV in 2012. The other half consists of ‘new’ voters, who have previously supported the liberal-conservative VVD or the social populist Socialist Party (SP) (roughly 13 per cent in both cases); a smaller fraction came from the social democratic Labour Party (PvdA, 9 per cent). These percentages suggest that PVV competes more with the mainstream right than with the mainstream left. But it also shows that anti-establishment voters consider populist parties of both the left and right.
About 9 per cent of PVV voters in 2017 were previously non-voters. This could mean that PVV manages to involve new groups of voters, and indeed, among formerly abstaining voters, the PVV was the most popular party. However, the group of people that voted PVV in 2012 but chose to abstain in 2017 is equal in size. This shows that many voters alternate between PVV voting or abstaining; both are more popular among voters who are dissatisfied with politics.
All in all, it is doubtful whether the 2017 elections are best described as the “quarter finals of populism”. However, if I winner in these finals should be selected, it was probably a tie between the populists and non-populists. The PVV performed less well in the elections than in the polls during the height of the refugee crisis, but nevertheless consolidated its position as a relatively large party in the Dutch landscape of medium-sized parties. Its voters can be found in areas experiencing deprivation or demographic stagnation, or those districts within cities that have experienced steep increases in the number of 1st or 2nd generation immigrants. Like other European populist radical right parties, PVV voters are above all critical of immigration and political elites.
As is the case in Germany, the PVV’s large share of votes, combined with other parties’ general refusal to cooperate with the party, helped to bring about a ‘coalition of the unwilling’ over the middle of the political spectrum. In anything, this is likely to enhance PVV’s fortunes in the future.