Classical Liberalism and Populism: A Subjective Review of the Dutch Election

The victory for the classical liberals in the Netherlands is reassuring in a time of populism.


Note: If you’re looking for our analysis of the Dutch election, please go HERE.  This article is an opinion piece.

The stories going into the 2017 Dutch Election were whether the “Dutch Donald Trump,” Geert Wilders, and his Party for Freedom would upend Dutch politics as we know it.  I would like to begin by saying that it is ridiculous to consider Wilders the Dutch version of Trump.  Geert Wilders wants to ban the Quran, close down Mosques, and kick out refugees.  That is not the same thing as Trump’s travel bans.  There are levels to right wing populism like any ideology, and Trump is moderate relative to Wilders and the PVV.  All the media does is anger Trump supporters even more by comparing him to extremists who he doesn’t agree with.

Now, to the Dutch election itself.  How I saw this election was the battling of a few ideological factions: the classical liberals/libertarians, the left, the Christian democrats, and the right wing populists (there’s not a real “conservative” center-right party in Dutch politics).  While I disagree with the very low 0.67% cutoff in the Dutch election (a 5% one gives much more stability), it allows us to really see the spread of opinions across Dutch politics; there is basically no such thing as a wasted vote when 13 parties make it into parliament.  There is something beautiful about that, as you really do have parliament reflecting the opinions of the people, and we get to see how popular those 4 factions are.

My findings are as follows (results from NOS):

  • Classical Liberals (VVD and D66): 33.3% of the vote and 52 seats
  • The Left (SP, GL, Labour, 50Plus, PvdD, and DENK): 32% of the vote and 49 seats
  • Christian Democrats (CDA, CU, and SGP): 18% of the vote and 27 seats
  • Right Wing Populists (PVV, FvD, and VNL): 15.3% of the vote and 22 seat

While there could be more sub-factions (especially in the left), I believe it is enough to look at these four, since each received a significant portion of the vote and is represented in slightly different ways by multiple parties.

Mark Rutte’s conservative-liberal VVD lead the more libertarian faction with the market friendly social-liberal Democrats 66. (Photo from the Atlantic Sentinel)

As a right-libertarian, I was happy to see the classical liberals as the largest faction, something that is rare across world politics.  I was especially pleased to see the conservative-liberal VVD win the election once again, holding strong against more right wing populist challenges.  While I disagree with the more left-libertarian Democrats 66 on some economic issues, they are far better than the left and some Christian democrats on economics and basically everyone on social issues (except on abortion, in which they are pro-choice).  The fact that these two parties received a third of the votes and hold 52 of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives is a great sign, since all the talk lately has been about the right wing populists.  Meanwhile the classical liberals have more silently delivered a win that will likely result in them aligning with the more moderate Christian democrats instead of the left or the right wing populists.  Hopefully this trend continues in the upcoming elections in France and Germany, though the French lack a real right-libertarian party.

It is also satisfying to see the chaos, and lack of success, on the left.  There has not been a leftist Prime Minister since 2002; CDA or VVD have led every government since then.  That situation has not been made any better for them with Labour absolutely falling apart and no one to replace them.  This is an opportunity for the classical liberals and center-right to have strong leadership with a solid majority in favor of market economics (the PVV’s one redeeming factor).  GroenLinks is rising, especially among young people, but there really isn’t a tier 1 party on the left to challenge the VVD for Prime Minister as the Socialist Party (the top left party currently) received only 9.2% of the vote and finished in 5th place.  To be fair, there’s a lot of leftist parties to divide the vote among, but it is difficult to unite your ideology when you’re so divided.  In short, the left in the Netherlands has been relegated to less than a third of the lower house and is not a real threat currently… good.

Meanwhile, the Christian democrats stayed fairly stagnant, as the CU and SGP received the same number of seats as before, but the CDA gained 6 seats.  I tend to be ambivalent at best about Christian democrats, as they tend to be socially conservative, especially the very reactionary SGP, and moderate when it comes to economics, so I’m glad that the VVD has continued to lead the center-right instead of the CDA.  Having the generic “right” led by a classical liberal instead of a Christian democratic party is a positive for both economic and social liberties.  That being said, they at least are somewhat pro-market, so a coalition of classical liberals and Christian democrats will hopefully lead to a more market based economy.

Wilders 2
Wilders’s PVV didn’t live up to expectations.

The right wing populists were the most covered faction in the election, especially from international media, but all the hoopla seems to have been for naught.  The right wing populist “wave” people were talking about seems to be less of a force than expected.  PVV only received 13.1% of the vote, and while they are definitely still a thorn in Rutte’s side, they are far from overturning Dutch politics.  More moderate right wing populists have managed to get a real foothold elsewhere, but Wilders’s extreme views have isolated him and his party, ensuring they have no role in future governments.  Forum for Democracy and For the Netherlands are much more moderate, and it would be best for the right wing populists to follow their path instead of alienating themselves along with Wilders’s blatant anti-Islam policies.  Overall, the 13.1% of the vote the PVV received is still too much.  The right-wing in the Netherlands is missing a free market and socially conservative party as I said before, and I think that is a real void that the PVV is taking advantage of.  If a major party or new party could move to try and fill that void, then the PVV would likely be pushed to the fringes where it belongs.  VNL seemed to be a group that could do that (since they’re more conservative than populist, though they are populist often in rhetoric), but they were too small to really make a different.

Libertarians should be pleased when we look at the results of the Dutch election, and we should learn from it.  The VVD has managed to place itself close enough to the right-wing void where it can appeal to both classical liberals and more traditional conservative who don’t like Wilders’s extremism and the CDA’s more moderate policies.  Mark Rutte has not always lived up to his promises, but his party is definitely the best major party in the country when considering the combination of economic and social policies.  Rutte’s VVD is put in a unique spot due to its more libertarian leanings, as they can align with more center-right and right-wing parties to push for economic liberty as well as D66 and some center-left parties to push for social liberty.  They hold enough seats to have a majority in both of those areas, being able to choose who they work with inside as well as outside of whatever coalition that results.  It is a unique role classical liberal parties play in politics, reaching across the traditional left-right spectrum in ways many social-democratic and conservative parties cannot.  The Netherlands is one of the few places we can see this in action, and we should be happy to have a classical liberal party in power, even if they are not “pure” libertarians.

I will conclude with my thoughts on potential coalitions and how the election will impact other elections coming up this year.

First, the coalitions.  My dream coalition would be between the VVD, D66, and VNL (or the Libertarian Party, which didn’t receive even 0.1% of the vote) as I believe each would bring a unique element that is needed.  Since VNL didn’t make it into parliament and the classical liberals are short of a majority, that is not possible.  In reality, the most likely coalition is VVD, D66, CDA, and a 4th party that has 5 seats or more.  Two parties reasonably would fit the criteria to work with those three, Labour and the Christian Union.  The Labour Party is most likely going to try to avoid being in the government since the populous punished them for allowing the VVD to pass austerity, so the Christian Union will probably be the 4th party.  As I said before, there are many positives, especially on economics for this coalition, and there is potential for D66 to have a positive impact on social liberty as well, combined with the pro-life policies of the other three parties.  This makes me optimistic for the Netherlands, and it will definitely be interesting to watch how things unfold going forward in the country.

The upcoming French and German elections may be impacted by these results, but we can’t be certain.  Firstly, the National Front and Alternative for Germany are both more moderate than the Party for Freedom, so Wilders may have just gone too far.  That being said, 13.1% of the vote is a significant chunk, making it harder for a coalition to form, especially when people refuse to work with the right wing populists.  Alternative for Germany is expected to receive less of the vote than the Party for Freedom did, but the National Front may make larger inroads into French politics.  We will have to wait and see, but for right now, right wing populists in Europe seem to be a thorn in the side of people forming coalitions instead of leading coalitions themselves.

Author: Brendan Noble

I am a political consultant, data-analyst, Hillsdale College economics alumnus, and conservative-libertarian. Twitter: @Brendan_Noble

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