Piggy-In-The-Middle: Even Centre-Ground Politics Can Be Cool

The result of the Dutch parliamentary elections, that took place on Wednesday 15th March, is a victory for the current prime minister, Mark Rutte. Although his party, the VVD, remain the largest political party in the Netherlands despite losing 8 parliamentary seats, Mark Rutte may face difficulties in forming a working coalition. It is probable that 4 political parties, excluding Geert Wilders whom Rutte has promised not to work with, will have to get together, give and take, and accept each others differences to be able to form a stable coalition. This will probably take weeks and possibly months.

Although other countries can take heart from the election results in the Netherlands, there still seems to be an overriding trend that the European political landscape is shifting steadily and surely to the right. This is true in the Netherlands, which has always been characterised by its political moderation, dialogue and compromise. Three things stand out in Wednesday’s results. The first, is the spectacular collapse of the traditional labour party, the PvdA, who is ending up with just a handful of elected members. The second, is the relatively weak showing of the extreme-right-wing party, the PVV, led by the charismatic, and up to now feared, Geert Wilders. Finally, the extremely high turnout of 82%, an increase of nearly 10% compared to 2012, seems to indicate that, contrary to the widespread apathy at election time, the Dutch at least, have not lost their interest in politics.

It is clear that a large number of traditional labour (PvdA) voters have shifted significantly to the right to support the three main centrist parties (CDA, D66 and CU). The results of the other left wing parties, Groen Links (green party) and SP, have not been able to compensate this loss. Although Groen Links will increase its participation in parliament by 10 seats, the Dutch left-wing political landscape has undergone a major shift to the right. Interestingly, the SP, who is in favour of a referendum to amend the EU constitution and give member states more power, remains stable between 2012 and now.

Geert Wilders is a big loser

Of all the political parties, Groen Links is considered to be the winner on election night. Its victory seems to be in vain since, even with the support of the most left-winged of the centrist parties, the combined left would account for only one-third of the parliamentary seats in the next parliament. The big loser is, of course, Geert Wilders. Maybe he should have spent a bit more time campaigning in the open air than behind his laptop on Twitter. All in all, his campaign was a bit of a let-down. Several of his meetings were cancelled for security reasons, and rumours have it that he couldn’t afford the cost of maintaining his security. Even after having admitting his defeat, he tweeted that Rutte wasn’t going to get rid of him that easily. Well, tweet as much as you want, Geert, but do read my posts on Conatus before you do yourself an injury.

Mark Rutte must stand firm and jiggle

And that leaves me with Mark Rutte. There’s a shifty and cunning “je ne sais quoi” about this politician. It’s just possible that he knew exactly what he was doing. He certainly hasn’t got the panache of a Wilders or a Trump, but he has the intelligence to know exactly how to shift to the right in order to be able to resist the real right-wing thugs. An example of this are the bitter-sweet remarks he made to a Turkish national living in the Netherlands, during the attempted coup in Turkey. The young man, who also has Dutch citizenship, was openly aggressive towards a Dutch TV crew who were reporting the events in Turkey. On Dutch television, Rutte told this young man to “Go back to Turkey, and get lost as they say in The Hague’s slang.”  The comment caused quite a stir in the Dutch parliament and became known as Rutte’s “pleur op” (“get lost”). Even members of his own party thought that he had gone too far, with former VVD parlementair Hans Wiegel, now 75, saying that Rutte’s outburst “lacked style”. Rutte’s infamous letter to the nation, published in January of this year and telling foreigners to “act normal or leave”, together  with his last minute “Turkish delight” that sent Erdogan back whence he came, were probably comforting enough to right-wing voters, so avoiding an electoral humiliation that many had predicted.

A battle is won, but not the war

The war is not over, but a battle has been won. Wilders has been tamed and Europe reassured, at least for now. The next step for Rutte is to form a stable coalition, so that we don’t have to go through all this a second time. It will not be easy because Rutte has categorically refused Wilders any participation in a future coalition. He will have to stand firm to the right and jiggle to the left. It all reminds me of the first couple of years of my secondary school back in the 70’s. The big boys, who were sitting their A-levels and were so much taller than us, would steal our ball and play between themselves by throwing the ball high over our heads across the playground, akin to the party game, piggy-in-the-middle. We eventually figured out that the best way to get our ball back was not to run after it, but to stay put in the centre and roam around in the middle of the playground, sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right. It worked, and it was cool.

It seems that Dutch politics was also cool, back then. The politicians didn’t worry too much about their image and productivity, but just went about their jobs as best they could, and enjoyed life. Hans Wiegel was the VVD party leader from 1971 to 1982, and Home Affairs minister from 1977 to 1981. He admits to only sporadically working 50-60 hours in the week, and recalls with nostalgia the times that he used to skive off work, pretexting that he had something important to do.“I went back home, had a drink, and told a bedtime story to my child. Lovely.”

Neptune and the Dutch

The problem with present day politics is that most politicians have lost their coolness. Extremism, intolerance and bigotry have taken over. For almost every single political agenda, you either agree and are “in”, or disagree and are “out”. There is nothing in-between and any discussion or compromise is out of the question. Politics has become bipolar. In that respect, the Dutch politicians (well most of them) might be considered to be the exception that confirms the rule. The very nature of the Dutch political system and essence of the Dutch people makes dialogue and tolerance the only possible way forwards for the Netherlands. That’s what made me fall in love with this country the day I visited Amsterdam back in 1998.

On 15th March, the Dutch electorate voted with its heart, but also with its wisdom. Theresa May and her merry Brexiteers want to teach the world a thing or two, but they should take note of what has just happened to one of their little neighbours. A country that has stood firm for centuries against the mighty Neptune and her unforgiving seas, has just done the same against political extremism and bigotry. And it’s ever so cool.