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On November 22, the Netherlands goes to the polls. The upcoming general elections follow the break up of the Dutch cabinet in July, when the coalition—comprising the conservative-liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), the social liberal Democrats 66 (D66), the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), and Christian Union (CU)—parted ways because of “unbridgeable disagreements” on asylum policies. The cabinet’s decision to resign came after months of grappling with multiple and often intertwined crises related to migration, climate, housing, and rising costs of living—to which the Dutch media referred to using the umbrella term “polycrisis.”  The Hague’s failure to provide timely solutions has only further eroded the public’s confidence in the government’s ability to effectively address and manage pressing issues.

The upcoming elections will inevitably bring important changes to the Dutch political landscape that has enjoyed relative stability during the 11-year tenure of Prime Minister Mark Rutte (VVD). Rutte, who has already announced he will not seek re-election, has demonstrated exceptional political acumen in bringing together parties with opposing agendas. And while he has been criticized in recent years for being “irresponsibly harsh” and “bordering on reckless politics,” Rutte’s departure leaves a high bar for his successor to meet.

Besides Rutte, several other prominent long-serving politicians are also exiting the political arena. This includes Sigrid Kaag, the former leader of D66; Wopke Hoekstra, the former leader of CDA; Sylvana Simons, the founder and former leader of the egalitarian anti-racist party BIJ1; and Farid Azarkan, the former leader of DENK, the party advocating for ethnic minority rights. Thus, following the cabinet’s dissolution, several parties, including the largest ones, have been facing the challenge of rapidly formulating their programs, launching election campaigns, and selecting a leader with the potential to become the next Dutch prime minister ahead of the election date in November.

Polycrisis: Unpacked

Among the main themes of the upcoming elections is the urgent need to improve the governance culture. The inter-party relations have been strained for years, exemplified by the extensive 299 days it took to form a coalition after the previous 2021 elections. Public trust in politicians continues to decline across varying social groups. The nitrogen crisis[1] and proposed top-down solutions have triggered protests from farmers, the child care benefits scandal[2] has exposed institutionalized discrimination practices, and the slow response to the harm suffered by residents in Groningen—where the extraction of natural gas caused several man-made earthquakes and damaged properties— illustrates the state’s unwillingness to admit past mistakes.

Among the main themes of the upcoming elections is the urgent need to improve the governance culture. The inter-party relations have been strained for years, exemplified by the extensive 299 days it took to form a coalition after the previous 2021 elections.

Another issue, recognized by practically all parties, is livelihood security (bestaanszekerheid), which is threatened by a web of existing problems. Last year, the Netherlands experienced the largest decline in purchasing power in forty years.  Without additional support measures, the number of Dutch people living below the poverty line is projected to increase from 4.8% this year to 5.7% next year, a figure equal to nearly a million people living in poverty. A decline in purchasing power, along with a severe housing shortage, has made it increasingly difficult for many young families and single professionals to afford rent in major cities, let alone buy property. The pressure on the housing market is compounded by the influx of refugees escaping conflict zones, as well as much-need labor migrants and high numbers of international students (with an estimated shortage of 26,500 student accommodations at present).

Moreover, there is the highly polarizing issue of climate change. In the Netherlands, unlike in the US, a significant portion of the population considers the climate problem real and important. However, those who are already struggling to make ends meet may not view making their homes more sustainable as their top priority or may be unwilling to bear additional costs, such as higher taxes on meat. The phenomenon around the Extinction Rebellion movement (est. 2018, XR) shows that the country is divided on the urgency and radicality of measures to be taken to address climate change. While mostly the young, urban, and highly educated applauded XR’s repeated blockings of the main A12 highway in the Hague and joined the protests against fossil fuel subsidies, others criticized the movement for disrupting public order and using critical infrastructure to demand political action.

After the 11-year rule of liberal VVD, there is a public appetite for a relatively more leftist—socialist and climate-friendly—party, which, nevertheless, should remain conservative on the issues of migration.

Finally, almost all parties—from left to right—acknowledge the need to gain “control over migration.” In that sense, there has been a major shift in the political logic, as the attention has moved from the needs of migrants to the needs of the local population. None of the large parties can permit ignoring the impact of migration on society. After the 11-year rule of liberal VVD, there is a public appetite for a relatively more leftist—socialist and climate-friendly—party, which, nevertheless, should remain conservative on the issues of migration.

Political spectrum

The utmost left section of the political spectrum will likely remain unchanged. The Socialist Party (SP) and the Party for the Animals (PvdD) are each expected to score between 6-9 seats out of 150. The newcomers from the 2021 elections – social liberal Volt and BIJ1—are expected to receive 1 or max 2 seats.

An important change is that this year the center-left Dutch Labor Party (PvdA) and the left-wing Green party (GroenLinks) will run under one flag and may gain up to 20 seats. In the upcoming elections, the duo will be headed by Frans Timmermans (PvdA), who returns to Dutch politics after several years in a high-profile position as the European Commissioner for Climate Action. Among the big losers on the center-left is D66, which is projected to go down from 24 to 7 seats. Another center-left party, DENK which targets primarily Dutch citizens with migration background may gain one extra seat (then 4 in total). It advocates for “punishing Muslim hatred,” the chemical castration of pedosexuals, and—since the escalation of tensions in the Middle East—also for a one-state solution under the Palestinian flag for Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The center-right political spectrum will be represented by the ruling VVD party, which continues to perform well in the polls despite Rutte’s departure (projected to secure 28-30 seats). The main competition for the VVD will come from the recently-formed New Social Contract (NSC), led by Pieter Omtzigt. Omtzigt has gained a reputation as a principled politician who is shunned by his more unctuous colleagues. He left CDA in 2021 after being bypassed for the leadership, and the coalition formation in 2021 was delayed because of leaked notes saying to appoint Omtzigt “somewhere else.” The NSC, with its program released less than a month before the elections, polls to win 27 seats. The party appears to offer an unconventional blend of both left- and right-wing policies. Omtzigt aims to set a maximum limit of 50,000 newcomers to the Netherlands per year. Simultaneously, he is committed to compelling the aviation and industrial sectors to adopt cleaner practices and to banning large-scale livestock farms.

The NSC is likely to draw votes away from the Farmer–Citizen Movement (BBB), led by Caroline van der Plas, also a former CDA member. The BBB made an impressive breakthrough in the 2023 Dutch provincial elections, by gaining 16 out of 75 seats in the Senate. The party’s main support base, dairy and meat farmers, argue that the nitrogen reductions in the country should not be focused on farmers, but on making industry, air traffic, shipping, and cars more green. Whether BBB will be able to transform itself from a populist one-issue party to a serious right-wing alternative remains to be seen.

The “mother” party of both NSC and BBB–Christian Democratic Appeal—is projected to lose at least 10 seats from the 15 they have at the moment. Christian Union and Reformed Political Party (SGP) will likely stay around 3-4 seats.

Whether BBB will be able to transform itself from a populist one-issue party to a serious right-wing alternative remains to be seen.

The far-right end of the political spectrum is represented by Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV), expected to secure about 7-8 seats. As one of the few remaining politicians from the “old guard,” Wilders continues to firmly push for an anti-Islam and anti-immigration agenda. The Forum for Democracy (FvD), another populist far-right party, is likely to lose seats and scale down from 5 to 3. Its leader, Thierry Baudet, has been espousing anti-state and anti-vaccine conspiracy theories since the COVID-19 pandemic. His current focus centers on criticizing “wokeism,” cancel culture, and LGBTQ+ movements. Baudet’s unexpected support for Palestine amid the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict is likely to have its roots in antisemitism. The splinter of the FvD, the JA21, which positions itself as a liberal-conservative party, is expected to win 2 seats.

The New Prime Minister

Besides new coalition options, the main intrigue revolves around the candidacy of the future prime minister. There is a high chance that the VVD will remain in power and deliver the first female head of the government (with Dutch King Willem-Alexander remaining the head of state). Dilan Yeşilgöz–Zegerius, originally from Turkey and naturalized in the Netherlands after arriving as a refugee,  served as the Minister of Justice and Security in the last cabinet. She has been involved in politics since at least 2014, starting at the municipal level in Amsterdam, yet Yeşilgöz profiles herself as a representative of the new political generation and, hence, culture. Her political stances are generally more to the right than Rutte’s, and she is open to the possibility of forming a government together with Geert Wilders’ PVV, an experience that Rutte refused to repeat after his cabinet fell in 2012.

The leader of the joint PvdA-GL, Frans Timmermans, is another strong candidate. He served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands from 2012 to 2014 and in his current campaign emphasizes his experiences of negotiating with Brussels’ politicians and significant international network. With many newcomers to Dutch politics, his knowledge and connections make him stand out. His critics, however, argue that after spending years in the EU’s top institutions, Timmermans grew detached from the national agenda; and despite portraying himself as a simple, Catholic miner’s grandson, Timmermans’ lifestyle cannot be further removed from that of ordinary workers whom he claims to represent.

The “Dark horse” of these elections, Pieter Omtzigt (NSC), prefers to keep the suspense: while he has long denied having any interest in becoming prime minister, his more recent remarks hint at such a possibility. The leader of the BBB, Caroline van der Plas, has decidedly refused to take the leadership post, even if her party gains the majority. Van der Plas arguably is afraid of flying and has an aversion to international politics; instead, she proposed the candidacy of Mona Keijzer, former State Secretary for Economic Affairs of the CDA, to undertake the prime ministerial responsibilities in case of the BBB’s victory.

(Un)divided attention

The November elections will take place in the context of serious domestic, as well as international turbulence. With the temperatures outside dropping, concerns about high energy bills have been on the rise. Although support for Ukraine across Dutch society remains strong, the Israel-Palestine conflict risks deepening existing rifts, even among parties that have committed to work together, such as the PvdA and GroenLinks.  The new cabinet will have to act quickly and decisively on a number of issues that caused the previous government gridlocks. With a new leader at the helm, this will undoubtedly be a formidable task.

Gulnaz Sibgatullina is an Assistant Professor for Illiberal Regimes in the Department of History, European Studies, and Religious Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Her research focuses on Islam in Europe, contemporary Islamic thought, state-church relations, and minority issues in Russia. In addition to these areas of expertise, she also has a keen interest in cultural illiberalism, sociology of religion and religious language, as well as translation studies.

Banner image: Made by John Chrobak using “Boeren protest” by kees torn licenced under CC BY-SA 2.0; “Participation of Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, in the Brussels European Council” by  European Commission (Christophe Licoppe) licensed under CC BY 4.0; “Rutte, Verhagen en Wilders bij presentatie regeer- en gedoogakkoord” by Minister-president Rutte licensed under CC BY 2.0; “Caroline van der Plas 2021” by BoerBurgerBeweging licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0; “D66 Utrecht campagne gemeenteraadsverkiezingen 2022” by Sebastiaan ter Burg licensed under CC BY 2.0; “Bouwen in Zuid-Holland is geen rechtse hobby, maar noodzaak. – VVD, Hillegersberg, Rotterdam (2023) 01” by  Donald Trung Quoc Don (Chữ Hán: 徵國單) licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

[1] The Netherlands is struggling with high emissions of nitrogen from agriculture, transport and industry. These emissions threaten the country’s nature and biodiversity. The 2019 ruling of the Council of State required nitrogen levels to be reduced before additional polluting activities could be permitted. This effectively froze all building permit applications— from houses to new infrastructure—leading to economic paralysis and further deepening of the housing crisis. The drive to curb the so-called “peak emitters” that put a lot of pressure on nature have mainly affected the intensive farming sector. The Dutch government has taken steps to buy out farms and to help farmers innovate to reduce their nitrogen emissions.

[2] In 2019, it came to light that the Dutch tax authorities had employed a self-learning algorithm to establish risk profiles with the aim of detecting potential childcare benefits fraud. Families were subjected to penalties based on the system’s risk indicators, even when there was just a suspicion of fraud. As a consequence, numerous families, often with lower incomes or from ethnic minority backgrounds, were driven into poverty due to significant debts owed to the tax agency.