The Dutch parliamentary elections on Wednesday have been won by two parties, the neoliberal VVD and the social democratic Labour Party.
Despite high expectations among its members and the radical left abroad, the left wing Socialist Party did not gain seats.
Newspapers in the Netherlands are hailing the election results as an end to political polarisation and a mark of renewed confidence in the political centre.
But this is more a case of wishful thinking than serious analysis. The electoral results mask deep political divisions in the Netherlands over privatisation, neoliberalism and austerity.
The VVD won 41 seats (up from 31) and Labour won 38 (up from 30), while the Socialist Party kept its 15 seats and the Greens were decimated to just four.
The right wing Christian Democrats lost eight seats, ending up with 13. And the good news was that the racist Freedom Party, headed by Islamophobic bigot Geert Wilders, suffered the worst of all, losing nine of its seats and ending up with 15.
The political backdrop to the elections is the raging crisis in the eurozone. All the mainstream parties are calling for harsh austerity measures.
Majority popular sentiment however is against hard cuts and against the associated European Union (EU) bailout packages. The Freedom Party had supported the previous pro-austerity government and thus damaged its “anti-establishment” image. So the Socialists were expected to do very well.
At first the polls indicated exactly this, with some even predicting that the Socialist Party would win the elections. But then three things happened.
First, the establishment raged about a coming “red terror” if the Socialist Party did well. These attacks cowed the Socialists and encouraged left wing voters to opt for the “safer” option of Labour.
Second, the Labour Party tacked to the left. It suddenly started talking about curbing the banks, redistributing wealth and breaking with the “rotten right wing policies”. With a new, energetic leader whose background was in Greenpeace, this rhetoric helped draw in potential Socialist voters.
Third, the Socialist Party’s reaction was to emphasise its “realism” and “readiness to govern”. It compromised its position on the pension age, backtracked on its harshest criticisms of the EU and ran a fairly apolitical campaign around its party leader’s candidacy for prime minister. This blurred its differences with Labour.
These factors combined to a create a perfect storm. In a matter of weeks Labour overtook the Socialists in the opinion polls and drew a lot of “tactical voters”, who were primarily concerned with keeping the VVD prime minister Mark Rutte out of office.
The same happened on the right, with former Freedom Party voters opting to vote VVD instead in the hope of keeping Labour out. The ironic consequence this tactical voting is that it will most likely lead to an unpopular but relatively stable “grand coalition” of both Labour and the VVD.
The ease with which so many potential Socialist voters returned to the fold of Labour underscores how fragile support for the far left is in the Netherlands.
Because that sentiment is not underpinned by social struggle it remains shallow and volatile. So there can be strong shifts in election outcomes without substantial changes in consciousness.
The left in the Netherlands needs a breakthrough in the fight against austerity far more than it needs another electoral spasm without a substantial social base.
The likely VVD-Labour government is sure to continue with austerity measures. And the high scores for the Socialists in polls prior to the elections at least shows the potential for a much stronger opposition than that we’ve seen so far.
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