Friday

23rd Apr 2021

Opinion

The Dutch election is boring - and that's a good thing

  • This year's election campaign in the Netherlands has been the least eventful in decades (Photo: Piotr Chrobot)

This year's election campaign in the Netherlands has been the least eventful in decades.

Party leaders can barely meet with voters.

Read and decide

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Only Thierry Baudet, the leader of the far-right Forum for Democracy, campaigns like there is no coronavirus, which he compares to a bad flu.

There are televised debates, and they are watched by as many as 1.8 million voters, on a population of 17 million - but they haven't made much of an impact on the polls.

Support for prime minister Mark Rutte's liberal VVD is virtually unchanged from the beginning of the pandemic a year ago, when it shot up to the equivalent of 40 seats.

The party's gains came at the expense of Forum for Democracy and the seniors' party 50Plus. Both would be lucky to win a handful of seats.

Baudet's rival, Geert Wilders, has neither gained nor lost popularity. His Freedom Party is expected to defend its 20 seats, but no other party would form a coalition with it.

Rutte's potential partners are the Christian Democrats, social-liberal D66, Labour, Greens and socially conservative but economically progressive Christian Union.

The first four are projected to win between 10 and 20 seats each. The Christian Union is polling at five to seven seats. 76 seats are needed for a majority.

Whichever of those five parties joins the VVD in the next government, it's not hard to imagine what some of its policies will be. There is consensus on major issues, such as climate, housing, immigration and labour law.

Nuclear and wind-power are divisive. Rightwing parties are for nuclear power and against wind turbines on land. Centre-left parties oppose nuclear and the Greens would build more wind turbines everywhere.

But all mainstream parties want to expand wind farms in the North Sea, phase out biomass, invest in green hydrogen and scale back - and eventually end - the extraction of natural gas from Groningen.

Leftwing parties want to regulate or even freeze rents, and would expropriate farmland to build new homes. The liberals and Christian Democrats oppose stricter rent controls and are more willing to sacrifice green space.

The parties agree the national government needs to do more to reduce the Netherlands' housing shortage, estimated at 300,000. Housing policy was devolved to local governments under one of Rutte's earlier governments.

The Christian Democrats and VVD argue for a yearly cap on asylum applications, a position they share with the far-right. Social democratic Canada and New Zealand have similar quotas, but D66 and the Greens insist the Netherlands should admit more, rather than fewer, refugees.

But even those parties agree economic migration, from safe countries, should be restricted.

Left and right differ on whether it should become cheaper for companies to hire workers on a full-time contract or more expensive to hire freelancers, but they agree the gap in benefits and social protections between full-time employees and contractors is currently too wide.

Unlike four years ago, the VVD supports a mandatory unemployment insurance for the self-employed.

It would be an exaggeration to say Dutch voters have nothing to choose between.

Health, housing, and taxes

Labour calls for €42bn in new business taxes. The liberals would add just €3.5bn.

The Greens want to eliminate private health insurance. Labour would keep private insurance companies but take away their power to negotiate prices with clinics and hospitals.

Even the Christian Democrats and D66, which helped liberalise health care with the VVD in the beginning of this century, now argue for less competition and more cooperation between health providers, insurance companies and local governments.

D66, the Greens and Labour would force farmers to reduce livestocks by 50 percent in order to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. All parties except the VVD want to eliminate student debt.

But where there is consensus, it should be welcomed. Critics who lament the Dutch tendency to woolly compromises should be careful what they wish for. Muddling through has served the Netherlands well.

The Dutch are among the happiest people in the world. They live longer than most. Their healthcare system is considered the best in Europe after Switzerland's.

Education rates similarly, according to the OECD.

The Netherlands is considered the second-best country in Europe, and seventh in the world, for international students. All the major Dutch universities are in the European top 25.

Corruption is virtually nonexistent. The Dutch economy is one of the most competitive in the world and considered the third-best prepared for the energy and digital transition, after Estonia and Denmark.

The national debt fell below 50 percent of GDP before the pandemic. Unemployment was just 3.3 percent. It beggars belief that this was all accomplished in spite and not because of how Dutch politics work.

The Dutch model of endless negotiation, involving all stakeholders and commissioning myriad studies before making decisions doesn't lend itself well to a crisis.

The country has lagged behind its neighbours in vaccinating its population against COVID-19. But it does mean that interests and information are seldom overlooked, and that once a decision is taken it is seldom reversed -- unless it was obviously a mistake, like devolving housing policy.

Political parties have their principles, but debates, in parliament and on TV, are more often about what works best. It doesn't produce a lot of drama, but who needs drama when you can have good government?

Author bio

Nick Ottens is the founder of Atlantic Sentinel, a transatlantic opinion website, and has written for the NRC newspaper in the Netherlands, the Atlantic Council's blog, World Politics Review, and various other publications. He is a member of the Netherlands' VVD.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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