Earlier this month, Amsterdam narrowly escaped catastrophic flooding.
Storm Ciarán dumped so much rain on the Dutch capital, located two meters below sea level, that residents near the city’s main waterway saw water lapping against their underground windows. The NRC, one of the leading Dutch newspapers, reported one resident joked that he could see “fish swimming.”
The only thing that kept an ordinary November morning from turning into calamity were a few men who pushed the flood control buttons (and quickly fixed a faulty floodgate).
This somehow reflects what the Netherlands is in 2023: a country in denial that, by a hair, no longer a tradition of thoroughness, avoids and prevents public services from completely collapsing – despite years of neglect and austerity imposed by the Prime Minister. The first three governments of Mark Rutte.
I say denial because the near-flooding of the capital received virtually no media attention outside of this NRC article – published two weeks later.
In fact, climate change (or flood protection) is not an important election issue among the major candidates this year at all. Among the four parties leading the polls, climate change only features prominently in the Labour-Greens campaign led by former EU heavyweight Frans Timmermans, who was Green Deal commissioner before leaving Brussels for return to Dutch politics in August.
As EUobserver has already reported, one of the buzzwords defining these elections is ‘bestaanszekerheid’, a term that translates to “livelihood security.” A subject in which the Labor-Green Party has traditionally excelled and has now promised to rebuild it by investing more in the welfare state.
Livelihood security does not only depend on income and work; it depends on a set of interconnected and interdependent assets and conditions that constitute a life worth living.
This includes affordable housing and social capital acquired from intact local communities that need things like decent health care, education, or a park bench to survive. Things that Timmermans has promised to invest more in.
His party, a new coalition between the Green Left and the Dutch Labor Party (PvdA), briefly rose in the polls when the new alliance was announced in August.
This immediately made him a contender for the top spot. And when he attended the annual conference of European socialists in Malaga Just over a week ago, he was hailed as the new Prime Minister of the Netherlands in all but name.
But all is not well on the socialist front.
The Timmermans effect does not work?
“It is clear that the campaign is not progressing as (the new left) hoped,” political scientist Simon Otjes told EUosberver.
The hoped-for Timmermans effect, which led to a doubling of Socialists & Democrats’ votes in the 2019 European parliamentary elections, did not translate onto the national scene. As in previous campaigns, the EU has barely been a topic discussed in these elections, making it harder for Timmermans to highlight past successes.
“The EU is traditionally an unpopular election topic. The cliché is that voters tend to change the channel if the EU is brought up,” Otjes said.
In the final stretch of the Dutch elections, talk spread that the former Green Deal leader was not doing his part (pun not intended, although Timmermans’ weight was the butt of jokes at the national television on several occasions.)
His party – now polling at 16 percent – returned to its pre-merger level and announced his candidacy.
It is now expected to place fourth this week, behind the liberal VVD (the party of outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte now led by Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius), the openly anti-Islam Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders and the New Social Contract, a dissident faction. party founded only in August by Pieter Omtzigt, a former long-time MP from the center-right CDA.
Even though Omtzigt has been in politics for more than 20 years, he managed to launch a “challenger campaign,” Otjes said.
“The Netherlands traditionally has a center-right majority,” he said. The only time the country had a solidly left-wing government was in the mid-1970s.
The way Labor has traditionally dealt with this fact has essentially relied on the same two ingredients for decades.
First, by positioning itself as the only possible left-wing alternative capable of governing. And second: by focusing the campaign on who will become Prime Minister.
The dynamic that the Green campaign team had clearly hoped for, however, has not materialized and is now characterized by an anti-establishment challenger, putting the highly experienced Timmermans at a disadvantage.
“The Omtzigt completely changed the political landscape,” he said.
Who is really the “foreigner”?
The lack of enthusiasm for Timmermans can be attributed in part to the fact that voters are looking for a different face rather than proven leadership.
Yet Yeşilgöz-Zegerius leads a party that has been in power for 26 out of the last 29 years – a fact she skillfully managed to hide during debates.
Omtzigt, the primary challenger, has been in politics for more than 20 years and is the second-longest serving lawmaker and one of the country’s most experienced politicians.
Meanwhile, Wilders, who wants the Netherlands to leave the EU, is currently number one in some polls.
Wilders, whom no one wanted to invite to government for years, has changed his tone somewhat to appear “softer” and increase his chances of governing. He also positions himself as an outsider. In fact, he is now the longest-serving MP in the 150-seat Parliament.
Yet it was Timmermans who was attacked in a televised debate by all of the above, because he was a perennial insider – someone who, as Wilders described him, “lost control of the reality “.
Intellectually, many social democrats might have expected these elections to be more like a home game. “We can definitely beat them,” one activist told EUobserver anonymously, referring to the far-right.
And there is a belief that left-wing issues are popular.
Timmermans campaigned for an increase in the minimum wage, climate protection and higher taxes on multinational corporations and their shareholders, seemingly easy sells in one of the most unequal countries in the world. ‘Europe.
But as poll numbers trend downward, a group of (former) party members are panicking, accusing Timmermans on social media of being too centrist, although it’s unclear whether that would shift the balance at this advanced stage.
“The left, to some extent, has lost touch on topics related to the welfare state and livelihood security,” said Andrej Zaslove, assistant professor of comparative politics at Radboud University. The Labor Party is still held responsible for the austerity imposed by Rutte’s second government, which included the Labor Party then led by Diederik Samsom, who later became Timmermans’ chief of staff in Brussels.
Another challenge facing the left is that “bestaansrecht,” the word meant to sum up social democratic ideals in one word, has lost its meaning.
Last Thursday evening (November 16), the four leading candidates faced off to discuss their plans for the future of the country.
Although the debate quickly degenerated into a confusing and shameful smear battle, it became clear that all major parties had annexed “bestaanszekerheid” as a central campaign theme – simply interpreting it differently.
While the VVD uses this term to refer to a tax cut for “hard workers”, the left-liberal D66 associates it with the right to determine the end of life.
Wilders has promised to waive health insurance fees — a promise his opponents say lacks financial support — and Omtzigt keeps repeating that word, even though its meaning is somewhat elusive.
“I have no idea what he means by that,” Zaslove told EUobserver.
But that may not matter much to ordinary voters. “They trust him. People who generally distrust politicians think he’s not the type who likes to be chauffeured around,” Otjes said.
“A lot can still change in the last days before the elections,” Otjes added, a view shared by most polling experts. With Wilders now running for the top spot, Timmermans, who has repeatedly said “he doesn’t want to wake up in a country where (Wilders’ party) is number one,” could attract strategic anti-votes. Wilders.
“I expect we will see more strategic voting,” said Peter Kanne, senior researcher at I&O Research, one of the leading Dutch polling agencies.
“In the previous elections he leaned towards D66 and Sigrid Kaag; this time he could go towards the Green Left-PvdA. I expect a little surprise on the left,” he said.