This fall, the Dutch elections will provide us with something we have all been waiting for: a true Dutch spring. While in the past years our country became a mock of a democracy with too much populist talk and too little true cooperation, we can see that there is change in the air. And I'll try to explain the sequence of events for you: the non-Dutch public.
From Fortuyn to Wilders: enter the populists...
As you know, ten years ago, we had a politician, Fortuyn, who sensed an enormous amount of dissatisfaction of the public with standard-politics and politicians. And he used this intelligently to mobilize the electorate to support his party. For many politicians, his strong emergence came out of nowhere and it was in fact the dawn of a different style of politics. More direct, more populistic and seeking the populist consensus rather than an optimal solution for all the public.
In a twist of history, Fortuyn was murdered. But PM Wilders had been looking closely and chose to emulate Fortuyn with clear and simple statements about Islam, mass-immigration. Essentially he played the classroom-bully for regular politicians, who found it hard to counteract his verbal agility. And in doing so he gained a lot of support. He also found it a good tactic to do some hate-speeching with respect to Islam/moslims but wasn't found guilty. Events in Norway later proved the effect of his hate-speech, but Wilder of course didn't want to take responsibility for infecting a young man's brain with nonsense.
As the 'Freedom Party' of Wilders grew quite big, he could enter into a construction where he helped a minority government rule the country for the past two years. But his party started to crumble from the inside, with some members leaving and explaining the inner workings of the party (Wilders rule is the one and only law). Given that there was no mass immigration of moslims he chose Europe as the new enemy to be used in campaigning. And he set up a notification-site to complain about Eastern European workers. But essentially the paint of his party started to fade and lose its effect.
At the same time, on the far left side, the Socialist Party adopted many of the stylistic elements of Wilders. In true populist style they banged similar drums on issues as Europe (no good), health care (don't touch it) and so on. Given that our Labour party was having too much internal debate due to a too decent leader (Cohen), this far left wing gained a lot of support in polls. The grand power party of the past, the Christian Democrats found themselves being punished once again and discovered that they alienated their constituency considerably by cooperating with Wilders in government.
Wilders breaks up the coalition
This spring, Wilders had to negotiate with the minority government on reforms to ensure that the Netherlands would remain within the 3% deficit criterium. After seven weeks, in which he dropped many of his previous populistic important demands, he suddenly stepped out. And thus, we were heading for new elections. And it is only through the responsible behaviour of five other parties (VVD, CDA, D66, GroenLinks and ChristenUnie) that we managed -in one week - to design and agree on a reform package that would keep us within the 3%
Since then it appeared we would see all the parties banging a populistic drum. Because that is what happened here in the Netherlands. In the last ten years our political debate became quite uncivilized, with name-calling and all kinds of unpoliteness. As such it may have been a reflection of a more general trend in society. Then again, when looking at the deepest desire of the Dutch (we have a government agency doing hefty research into this..: SCP), there was a loud and clear appeal for: less individualism, more respect, more collectivity, more honesty.
Meanwhile, our minority government had grown the habit of not listening to the representative organisations of the citizens. They didn't listen to their formally appointed Counsels of Advice. And they even ignored the negative advice of our Council of State (Raad van State) on legal proposals that were just unfit, undoable or unconstitutional. And thus, over on my Dutch blog, in february this year I wrote a longer blog-posting: Time for a Dutch spring.
The blog post outlines that the Dutch both need and desire a revolt in politics, just as badly as those in other countries of the world (even if we don't think we need it). I pleaded for more balance and more nuance in the political debate. And I hoped for a society where media don't go for the hype and the incident. In sum, the blog outlined that the true Dutch spring is within reach if we all, individually, act resposibly towards each other without letting the economic mantra's getting too much in the way.
Developments in the Dutch election campaign: we respond to decency and honesty !
The essence of what happened here in the Dutch election campaign is that the old populist talk didn't work any more. Citizend could see Wilders doing his usual kinds of populistic stuff, but in the back of our minds they all thought that his previous tough talk turned out to be nothing but a charade. And the same line of thinking was applied to the Socialist Party, at the other end of the politicial spectrum. So far right and far left were losing in the polls.
And while everyone had believed all the debat would be between Socialist Party leader Roemer and Liberal Party leader (and prime Minister) Rutte, a change was happening. Labour Party Leader Samsom chose to not sweet-talk the citizens. He outlined clearly the tough choices to be made (including possible help for a 3rd rescue package for Greece) rather than pretend that no more support would be given. And it is this, more true, nuanced approach that started to resonate. Within a time frame of weeks Samsom suddenly started making up to become just as big as the Labour Party (in the polls).
Rutte, the prime-Minister, made some errors in his campaign, resorting to verbalities rather than seriously answering legitimate questions. In an effort to steer his success he even tried to avoid sitting at the same table in a talk show, with a famous Dutch comedian: Freek de Jonge. The net result was negative however, because the one comedian filling in for Freek, was quite outspoken and well able to counter the verbalities of Rutte with spirited arguments.
Will we have a Dutch spring?
What I think (or perhaps hope) is that the Labour Party has rightly assessed that the public is fed up with the populist talk and scamming that all politicans were resorting to. They chose to position themselves differently than others and chose for honesty and nuance. And it looks as if that approach will get them the majority of votes and the chance to be in the lead for the formation of a new cabinet.
If indeed the PvdA turns out to become the biggest party, then we can rightly state that our election day: September 12, will have marked the beginning of a Dutch spring.