The Netherlands Struggles to Find Political Stability as Polarisation Increases

The Netherlands Struggles to Find Political Stability as Polarisation Increases

Amid the pandemic, Dutch politics have become increasingly tumultuous. Its parliamentary elections in March touted the largest number of parties on the Dutch ballots since the 1940s. Additionally, a public awareness of a myriad of socio-political issues and a relatively high voter turnout possibly reflect a more diverse political landscape. Yet, the fallout from last year’s childcare benefit scandal, and renewed discussions about political transparency have impaired ongoing formation talks.

In addition, more worrying trends such as the increased polarisation of Dutch society in recent years – as has been the case in much of Europe – have possibly been accelerated by the pandemic. Dutch intelligence and counterterrorism agencies have warned that far-right extremism is on the rise, and the chance of a terrorist attack is “probable.” Arguably the pandemic has exacerbated these issues and made certain societal groups more vulnerable to radicalisation. However, the majority of these shifts are not expected to be long-lasting if the government manages to find stability and relieve the socio-economic grievances that were exacerbated by the pandemic. For many Dutch people, the crisis has exacerbated difficulties in finding stable employment and has made real estate prices within an already overheated housing market rise at one of the fastest rates in Europe. Once coronavirus measures are relaxed, and some wider societal dissatisfaction is partly alleviated, extremist groups will also find a decreased support base in the Netherlands.

Dutch Pandemic Politics

The Netherlands has not managed the pandemic well. Its vaccination programme was one of the last in Europe to get started, and the additional measures taken to fight the virus were hesitant and panicky, greatly impacting the policy’s legitimacy. For instance, against WHO advice, the Dutch Health Authority maintained at the beginning of the crisis that face masks were not necessary and provided people with a false sense of security. Yet, after a steep increase of coronavirus cases at the end of 2020, the government backtracked and made face masks compulsory by December in indoor public spaces, causing widespread criticism.

Even though the first wave of COVID-19 temporarily decreased public scepticism, criticism and distrust of the Dutch government has increased in the past year. To add to this rising distrust, the government resigned in January over the childcare benefits scandal. From 2012 onwards, the Dutch Tax Authority unjustly accused thousands of parents of claiming childcare benefits fraudulently, leading to home losses, unemployment and divorces. The government was seen as breaking its own rules, and worsened the wariness and uncertainty towards the government. The scandal sparked a wider discussion about political transparency and prejudice, which was carried over into the Dutch Parliamentary Elections in March 2021.

Crisis of Confidence

While the election results showed a victory for the right wing, mostly at the expense of the left, fresh elections did not alleviate public distrust in politics. If anything, Dutch civil society discussions about transparency and an honest political culture were re-ignited when a minister was photographed with classified formation documents as she rushed to her car. Close-ups of the documents suggested that negotiations had surrounded a possible future ministerial position to “get rid of” a prominent and critical member of parliament, Pieter Omtzigt. The controversy that followed derailed the formation process, before it had properly started. Prime Minister Mark Rutte had to testify in parliament about why he had initially denied having spoken about Omtzigt, while the meeting minutes that were later released suggested otherwise.

In one of the most widely watched parliamentary debates in recent history, Rutte narrowly survived a vote of no-confidence. Up until now, Dutch political parties have been working on repairing trust between each other, and the wider public. The winning parties have still been unable to form a new government, despite urgent issues that the Netherlands faces. The continuing stalemate increases the likelihood of divisiveness in Dutch society becoming a long-term challenge, especially as the management of the pandemic will likely be held back by political instability.

In the face of the scandal, the Dutch public is largely divided on what should be done in light of these controversies. Arguably, the instability seen in The Hague is reflective of a larger trend in Dutch society that has increased during the pandemic. According to a government survey on April 9th, just over half supported all the government’s coronavirus measures. Yet, people that were in support of the government introducing “more,” or “significantly more” measures represented 23%, and those that favoured letting go of “some” or “all” restrictions represented 24%.

The visibility of online criticism, skepticism and distrust about coronavirus measures and public health experts possibly shows that a larger minority than before is susceptible to taking up extreme views, possibly with violent outcomes.

Increased Extremism in the Netherlands and Europe

In recent years, the European political landscape has shifted more towards the right. Parties that are populist, EU-sceptical and anti-immigration have been garnering support across Europe in national elections. For instance, Spain’s VOX party and Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD) garnered 14,8% and 12,6% of the vote respectively in their last general elections. In the Netherlands, right wing populist party Forum for Democracy (FvD) gained significant support in the 2021 elections, being the only party that was openly sceptical of the coronavirus measures. Some FvD politicians were quoted touting misleading statistics about excess mortality in 2020, and questioned the safety, necessity, and efficiency of vaccines.

Besides the rise of right wing politics, an increase of (violent) extremism has also been observed. As support for far-right conspiracies in the Netherlands have become increasingly visible in the public space, Dutch national news broadcaster NOS was forced to remove their logo from broadcast vans. Journalists and politicians had been verbally and physically harassed on the street, being accused of spreading “fake news,” or having death threats shouted at them. As intimidating protests increased and the atmosphere in The Hague turned increasingly grim, the speaker of the Dutch House of Representatives inquired into pressing charges.

The chaotic riots against the evening curfew (the first since Nazi occupation in the Netherlands in WWII) suggest that a more significant group has been willing to listen to more extreme and conspiratorial views. However, those who participated are likely to have varied motivations. At protests and in online spaces, groups that are generally discontented or sceptical about the government’s coronavirus measures (due to the loss of income and social activities) meet those who have already felt forgotten for a longer period of time. Additionally, as people spend more time at home and are impacted by job losses due to the pandemic, it could drive them towards radicalisation in online spaces more quickly. Therefore, the Dutch counterterrorism unit warns conspiratorial thinking and online echo chambers can lead to polarisation and hardened beliefs, even though violent incidents related to coronavirus have stayed relatively limited up until now. To illustrate, in a few isolated cases, COVID-19 test centres were set on fire, and in April, a man was arrested for planning an explosion at a vaccination centre.

Risk Outlook

In the short term, building public trust is essential to restoring political stability in the Netherlands, but not at the expense of public health. Recently, the government decided to reopen outdoor terraces and non-essential shops, against the advice of its infectious disease board. Combined with an expensive and disorganised rapid testing programme, arguably not enough attention is being paid to controlling the spread of the virus. Despite a steady decline in the number of COVID-19 cases and an increase in vaccination rates throughout May and June, the government’s attempts to keep interest groups happy show that Dutch coronavirus policies are just as disorderly as before. If buying public support with prematurely discontinuing restrictions fails and coronavirus cases increase, this is very likely to backfire – causing more skepticism and discontent. Should formation talks succeed, political stability is likely to be positively impacted. However, the government’s coronavirus response is likely to be impaired in terms of acceptance and legitimacy if a stalemate continues. There is also reason to believe that a violent incident is probable in the short term, if societal discontent and the spread of online misinformation is not addressed.

Yet, in the long-term, the countering of polarisation and extremism will depend on preventing the spread of misinformation online and alleviating (wider) socio-economic grievances.

Tech companies have been taking responsibility in this regard. Similarly to how Trump’s tweets have previously been labelled as containing misinformation, several of FvD leader Thierry Baudet’s tweets about vaccines have been labelled as misleading, making Baudet the first Dutch politician to receive such a label from Twitter. However, such a label will not ease the minds of those that already struggle to trust the government. In fact, it might even increase distrust among those that interpret it as censorship of ideas in which they believe. In the long term, the amount of visible discontent is likely to decrease, as coronavirus measures are lifted and economic hardships are relieved. Even so, a discontented group is likely to remain post-pandemic if the government does not manage to tackle already existing socio-economic grievances, such as the ability to find affordable housing or stable employment. The long-term challenge for the Dutch government will lie in portraying strength and finding balance amid instability.


Categories: Covid-19, Europe

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