Dutch Election 2017

by Bill Emmott on March 14, 2017 at 5:25 pm in: Elections, Netherlands, Overall
by Bill Emmott on March 14, 2017 at 5:25 pm in: Elections, Netherlands, Overall

On Wednesday March 15th voters in the Netherlands will go to the polls in one of the most closely watched Dutch elections in decades. Following the shocks of Brexit and Trump, the world wants to know whether the populist, anti-EU surge will continue with success for Geert Wilders, head of (and only member of) the Dutch Freedom Party. A look at the 2050 Index however would suggest that it shouldn’t.

The same message comes from recent economic data, too. Last year Dutch GDP grew by 2.1%, its fastest annual rate for a decade and better than all its Eurozone neighbours. In the 2050 Index the Netherlands stands fifth, well ahead of Germany and streets ahead of either the UK, France or the United States.

The good Dutch performance on the 2050 index reflects the country’s all-round excellence at preparing for the big forces of the 21st century: its better-than-average education contributes to a high knowledge score, its low spending on public pensions has kept its public finances in good shape despite demographic change, its very open economy has allowed it to adapt to changing trade and investment patterns, its companies spend amply on R&D, and its institutions are resilient.

So why the focus on Geert Wilders? Like in other western countries, some of the aggregate data conceals divergent outcomes, especially in incomes and job insecurity. The Eurozone in particular has looked, even to the open Dutch economy, like as much a problem as a solution. Hence, nearly a decade on from the global financial crisis, economic grievances linger.

However they linger a lot less in the Netherlands than elsewhere. Back in 1981 your author recalls writing, as a junior reporter in the Brussels office of The Economist, a special report on the Netherlands which opened with these words: “If somewhere must be found to sit out the recession, Holland must be the nicest, comfiest place to choose.” That remains true, 35 years later.

What has changed is immigration. It is not high by EU standards: at around 12% of the population, it is lower than in the UK or Germany, for example. But it has given Mr Wilders and his populist forebear Pim Fortuyn his issue.

Will the Freedom Party pull off a success? In recent opinion polls, Wilders’ party has slipped back to 15% of the vote, lower than the VVD party of the current prime minister, Mark Rutte. The government’s tough line on Turkish government electioneering and violent demonstrations over the past weekend may contribute to Rutte’s showing.

Yet the size of those numbers tells us something important about the Netherlands: whether Wilders gets 15% or 20%, it is a fairly small share of a fragmented party system, one in which coalitions are necessary to form governments. That is part of the Netherlands’ resilience.

Edited by Max Traeger