Netherlands Elections Underway: Up to 60 Percent of Voters Remain Undecided

On election day, the Netherlands' nearly 13 million voters find themselves in the midst of a political process that is unprecedented in its fragmentation and uncertainty.

People queue at a polling station for Dutch general elections in The Hague, March 15, 2017.
JOHN THYS/AFP

AMSTERDAM - Will Wednesday’s general election in the Netherlands ultimately be decided by the influence of two foreign leaders unconnected to the country’s internal politics – Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president who dragged Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte into a loud diplomatic spat and gave him an opportunity to flex his muscles, and U.S. President Donald Trump, whose first two months in office appear to be causing many Dutch voters to be wary of taking a gamble on their version of such a candidate, far-right leader Geert Wilders?

On the day of the election, Holland’s nearly 13 million voters find themselves in the midst of a political process that is unprecedented in its fragmentation and uncertainty. Some 50-60 percent of voters are still undecided. The election is wide open – and pollsters are also warning, as usual, that it is harder to gauge the expected impact of far-right voters, who tend to hide their true intentions.

A record 28 parties are competing in this election, and if the latest polls are correct, not one will get more than 16-18 percent of the vote. No longer are there just two or three large parties, as in the past. Leading the race right now are Rutte’s liberal center-right VVD party, which is expected to win 24-27 seats (down from 40 in the last election), and Wilders’ far-right Freedom Party, with a projected 19-23 seats (up from 12 in the last election). There are 150 seats total in the Dutch parliament.

If the voters don’t pull any last-minute surprises following the recent diplomatic uproar between Ankara and The Hague (seat of Holland’s government), and current forecasts are borne out, Rutte would enjoy a certain advantage as he tries to form a new government.

The magic number in Dutch politics is 76 – this is the number of seats required for a majority in the lower house of parliament. Rutte has a number of potential partners that could enable him to stay in power. It won’t be easy and it will take time – weeks or months – but it should happen. Dutch politics has a long history of compromise among political parties. For Wilders, though, the prospects of forming of government appear slight at best.

A few months ago, when the election campaign was just getting underway, there was a strong feeling that the far-right could attain an unprecedented position of power. The polls predicted a very strong showing for Wilders, forecasting that his party would win 30 seats. Just as stunning were the opinion polls showing a majority asserting that if he did win, he should be a senior partner in the government (not as prime minister, but as part of the coalition).

The traditional voter base of the far-right, which draws on nationalism, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim ideology, was seen to be expanding to include more middle-class and highly educated voters.

But as election day has drawn nearer, Wilders’ advantage has eroded. Most Dutch analysts agree that Donald Trump has a lot to do with it. Given what has been going on in the White House, which the local media are portraying as anarchy, with erratic and damaging behavior that is endangering the West, voters who were ready to take a chance this time on voting against the traditional politicians and against the old solutions – i.e., by voting for their version of Trump, the anti-establishment candidate Wilders – are having second thoughts. Fewer and fewer of them now seem ready to take that leap of faith.

Big parties boycotting Wilders

Front-runners Geert Wilders and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte before a debate, Rotterdam, March 13, 2017.
Yves Herman POOL via AP

Another factor working against Wilders is the unequivocal statements issued by the big parties from right and left that they will not cooperate with the far-right to form a new government. However, a surprise from one or more of the niche parties could help his situation. For example, this week, Henk Krol, leader of the 50Plus party, was heard telling the media that “if Wilders will accept what we demand, we would have no problem working with him.” Krol, at 66 the eldest Dutch member of parliament, heads a pensioners’ party whose platform aims to safeguard a certain standard of living for the elderly. A third of Holland’s population is over 50, and surveys indicate that the party could defy early predictions and win as many as 10 seats.

In the novelty category, there’s also Florens van der Spek, a former drug addict who found religion and leads the Jesus Lives party. He has also said that he would support Wilders, in the name of love of God. Neither will Peter Plasman’s Abstainers party (Niet Stemmers) vote against Wilders – since its platform pledges that the party will not vote for or against any issue that comes up in parliament. As of now, neither of these parties is expected to win any seats.

However, there are two parties which the analysts say could pull off a surprise. One is the left-wing “green” party (GroenLinks), headed by Jesse Klaver, 30, the son of a Moroccan immigrant and bearer of a Justin Trudeau-style charisma that is captivating voters. The polls now predict his party will take 20 seats (up from just 4 last time).

Then there is the Turkish immigrant party DENK, led by Turkish-born Tunahan Kuzu, which could capitalize on the anger of Turkish-Dutch voters over their government’s treatment of Erdogan.

The televised debate held between the two front-runners, Rutte and Wilders, has also been a main topic of conversation over the last day, and will likely have some impact on the vote as well.

Standing just feet away from one another, looking each other in the eye, the two candidates hurled stinging rebukes back and forth. Wilders: “No one believes you anymore, Mr. Rutte! You’re the prime minister of the foreigners, not of the Dutch.” Rutte: “Wilders runs away every time he encounters a problem.”

The first subject that came up in the debate was the clash with Turkey. Wilders, menacingly wagging his finger, asserted that the prime minister should have been tougher and “expelled the Turkish ambassador and his staff from Holland immediately.” Rutte, who is in his second term as prime minister, cited his long experience in government: “This is the difference between someone who stands on the side or writes something on Twitter while sitting on his couch at home, and someone who has to actually manage affairs of state.”

Aware that Holland’s EU partners are watching his country as a barometer of the ascension of the far-right, Rutte said in the debate, “I want Holland to be the first country to strike a blow against this evil populism.”