The elections held on 22 November 2023 marked a significant shift in the political landscape in the Netherlands. The Dutch government had fallen earlier in the summer due to disagreements over immigration-curbing measures wanted by PM Mark Rutte’s VVD party. At the elections his centre-right, liberal VVD finished third with 24 seats, just one seat behind the centre-left alliance between Groen Links-PvdA (Greens & Social Democrats), but both faced defeat against Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party PVV, which scooped up 37 seats. The political establishment also saw many votes go two relative newcomers, the NSC party (20 seats) and BBB (7 seats).
While we have witnessed other populist movements gaining traction in the Netherlands in the past few decades, electoral successes of this magnitude generally occurred at local or Senate elections. Wilders’ PVV triumph is unprecedented, precisely because the party won the elections for the crucial Lower Chamber – and did so by a substantial margin. Many are calling the outcome historic.
The political story of Geert Wilders
Geert Wilders has been a notable figure in Dutch politics since 1998. Leaving the VVD in 2004 due to differences over Turkey’s negotiations towards EU accession, he formed his Party for Freedom (PVV), gaining further fame for his outspoken views on immigration and Islam. In the past 12 years, under Mark Rutte’s leadership, the VVD managed to keep the influence of the PVV at bay. In 2012, Rutte’s first government, a minority coalition with Christian democratic CDA, collapsed within seven months (in 2012) due to disagreements with the PVV over cuts to the budget which VVD and CDA felt were needed to tackle a growing deficit. PVV had, seven months earlier, promised to prop up the coalition by supporting it from parliament.
For the decade which followed, Rutte continue to exclude the PVV (he called Wilders “unfit to govern”). The campaign for the November 2023 elections saw a shift with the VVD’s new leader Dilan Yeşilgöz saying she didn’t want to dismiss the worries of the millions of voters Wilders represents. In the end, this strategy did not secure victory for the VVD. Meanwhile, Wilders moderated his stance on Islam, earning him the moniker “Geert Milders” and, by doing so, increased his electoral acceptability. Now, Wilders faces the challenge of forming a coalition with the VVD and new parties NSC and BBB to secure a majority in the 150-seat Lower Chamber.
The Dutch coalition formation process explained
The Dutch coalition-building process is notorious for taking many months. Rutte’s last coalition broke the record after the 2021 elections: it took 299 days before it was sworn in. Whether it will take that long this time is anyone’s guess, but the negotiations have started with the VVD and NSC expressing reservations about some of the PVV’s past policy positions. In the meanwhile, Rutte will continue to lead a caretaker government.
Let’s have a closer look at the parties Wilders’ PVV is now negotiating with.
VVD, People’s Party for Freedom & Democracy
VVD was the biggest party in parliament for 13 years, but ended up in third place on 22 November with 24 seats, one seat behind the alliance of Greens & Social Democrats. The VVD has stated it intends to support proposals from a “centre-right coalition” from parliament but will not provide ministers and under-secretaries. Mid-January 2024 VVD Senators in the Upper Chamber said that they will vote in favour of a law enforcing local municipalities to accept equal distribution of refugees throughout the country. The Senate faction’s support for the refugee distribution law is much to the chagrin of party leader Yeşilgöz and her VVD MPs in the Lower Chamber, who took a vocal stance opposing implementation of forced regional distribution before stricter immigration measures are in place.
NSC, a New Social Contract
NSC is a new party which burst onto the scene with 20 seats. It is led by former Christian democrat MP Pieter Omtzigt: a popular politician running on a platform for transparent governance (he helped uncover the childcare benefits scandal which had seen the Dutch Tax Office making false claims of fraud against parents, driving many of the affected parents to financial ruin). While they’re both socioeconomically left-leaning and culturally more on the conservative side of the spectrum, NSC and PVV differ substantially on constitutional matters, complicating negotiations.
BBB, Farmer-Citizen Movement
The second newcomer negotiating with Wilders’ PVV is BBB, a party which advocates for Dutch farmers and rural communities. The party obtained 7 seats in November 2023, but had won the Senate elections earlier that year and its power in that Upper Chamber is important to any coalition, as the Dutch bicameral system requires laws to pass both Chambers. BBB rose to prominence in the past few years due to growing dissatisfaction in parts of the country where some claim they are bypassed by central government in The Hague.
Ronald Plasterk, the Negotiator
In a surprise twist, Ronald Plasterk was put forward by Mr Wilders to become ‘informateur’. Plasterk is a former minister for the social democratic PvdA (Labour party) who has in recent years grown critical of the centre-left’s focus on identity politics above the acute interests of its traditional working class voter base. As informateur Plasterk is tasked with seeking consensus among the negotiating teams of the four parties. There’s even rumours that Plasterk may end up being prime minister, potentially easing concerns from some about Wilders moving into the premier’s office.
Dutch voters just can’t get no satisfaction
Geert Wilders’ PVV secured victory in the elections with 37 seats, yet lacks a majority. While there is a majority of right and centre-right parties, the Dutch parliament encompasses representatives from across the political spectrum. The left and centre-left hold only a third of seats, signalling a departure from the decades-long trend of broad coalitions spanning the centre.
In recent decades, governments pursued a pro-business course with culturally progressive policies. Mark Rutte’s tenure as PM exemplified this approach, focusing on fiscal prudence and economic growth (there have been growing complaints from industry and commerce about rule inflation and bureaucracy though). Together with coalition partners, like the centre-left liberal D66, Rutte’s last two coalitions leaned toward progressive policies on cultural issues.
Josse de Voogd, an electoral geographer, signals a growing desire among voters for a socioeconomically left-wing but culturally conservative shift. This involves moving away from certain cultural themes and prioritising social benefits, reducing market-driven incentives in healthcare, and preserving rural amenities.
Immigration is another concern to the electorate and it emerged as a central issue in the elections, with De Voogd arguing that established parties failed to address citizen dissatisfaction. The PVV’s victory, he contends, reflects an electoral expression of long-building popular discontent.
Can the Dutch political system weather electoral shifts?
Following the elections, concerns about polarisation and the governability of the country arose. Outgoing MP Kees van der Staaij, a former party leader for the small Christian party SGP, likened the rise of populist outsiders to air travel turbulence, advocating for a level-headed approach. He highlighted the historical fluctuations between consensus and polarisation in Dutch politics, emphasising the adequacy of institutional safeguards.
Others expressed more concern about the Dutch political system’s resilience. Professor John Morijn cited examples from other EU countries like Poland and Hungary, where parties such as PiS and Fidesz challenged liberal democracy’s core tenets while in power. With over half of the world’s population heading to the polls in 2024, the discussions in the Netherlands may be a prelude to similar debates globally, and especially so in the European Union.
Public Affairs: navigating a new political landscape
At Wepublic it is our aim to provide the sharpest possible advice, therewith enabling organisations to make the right choices – choices which contribute to current and future societal challenges in a constructive, positive manner.
In the wake of the recent political reshuffle, we now, more than ever, advise clients to recalibrate and sharpen their public affairs messages with the help of our consultants and to start building relationships with the new contingent of MPs. And, crucially, to ensure they keep abreast of any new law initiatives and political and media attention which concerns their reputation by using Wepublic’s digital insights tools such the Issue Tracker and Stakeholder Intelligence Monitor/Stakeholder Intelligence Europe.