Netherlands goes to polls amid predictions of returning status quo

Despite welfare scandal and reluctance on masks and vaccines, Dutch resisting change

Dutch outgoing prime minister Mark Rutte: tax authorities pursued 20,000 families to repay child benefit payments that were rightly theirs. Photograph: Sem Van Der Wal

Dutch outgoing prime minister Mark Rutte: tax authorities pursued 20,000 families to repay child benefit payments that were rightly theirs. Photograph: Sem Van Der Wal

 

It speaks volumes about its love of social order that, after 12 months of death, turmoil, and even rioting in the streets, the Dutch electorate goes to the polls on Monday expected to rethread much the same coalition government, and probably the same prime minister, it has just thrown out of office.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit last year, the “frugal” Netherlands had successfully repaired its economy after the global crash a decade earlier. Unemployment was at a record low of 2.9 per cent. The third consecutive coalition led by Liberal leader Mark Rutte looked very much in control.

And why not? The mainstream parties’ controversial strategy of excluding Geert Wilders and his far-right Freedom Party from talks on a new government had left him sitting friendless on the sidelines despite leading the country’s second-largest party, with 20 of the 150 seats in parliament.

A strategic byproduct of that exclusion was that it opened a virtually unassailable lead by the Liberals with 33 seats and 21.3 per cent of the vote, from their nearest potential coalition partners – on the last occasion, the Christian Democrats with 19 seats and 12.4 per cent of the vote.

The net effect – cataclysms apart – was a tidy template for government where the Liberals remained dominant, other mainstream parties queued for a place in a four-party coalition, the far-right was declawed, and Rutte continued to do what he does best: conduct the political orchestra.

Covid-19 deaths

It couldn’t continue forever, of course. But there were wry smiles in political circles last March as coronavirus took hold and a benign caricature of the premier posted on social media showed him older and much greyer, posing almost apologetically at the head of his eighth cabinet.

Events since then have been well-rehearsed. New figures on Friday put the death toll from coronavirus in hospitals and nursing homes at 16,000 in the first nine months of the pandemic alone.

There were mistakes, such as the ill-judged delay in making masks compulsory.

There were hard choices, such as the second lockdown and particularly the curfew, which sparked three nights of rioting and a challenge in the courts, but which was essential to dampen the virus.

There was prevarication over vaccination, more a minor humiliation than anything else, as the Dutch came last in the EU for a second time: last to mask up and last to jab.

But the issue that brought the Rutte government down in January was a scandal it had hoped would go away: a long-running row over the hard line taken by the tax authorities who pursued 20,000 families – many through the courts – to repay child benefit payments that were rightly theirs.

Forgiving electorate

What cut to the core of Dutch society and made this a resigning matter for the government was that, as the saga emerged, it became clear that nobody had listened to those who had cried halt: not the government, not the individual parties, not the tax authorities – and worst of all, not the judiciary.

“The buck stops here,” said Rutte, announcing the collapse of the government.

Many of the families worst-affected were not impressed, demanding a commitment that he would not lead the next coalition.

However, a Politico rolling poll of polls this weekend shows a more forgiving electorate gifting the Liberals an additional five seats, mainly in recognition of the PM’s management of the pandemic. Peilingwijzer, which combines four Dutch polls, agrees.

Because of coronavirus precautions, voting is from Monday to Wednesday, with the result due on Wednesday evening.

In percentage terms, Peilingwijzer shows the top five parties emerging almost as they were: Liberals, 25 (21.3); Freedom Party, 13 (13.1); Christian Democrats, 11 (12.4); D66, 10 (12.2), and GreenLeft, 7 (9.1).

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