With just a few days to go before the Dutch election, a surprising number of voters on the streets of the small southern city of Tilburg on Thursday did not make up their minds.
“I still have to read,” Pleun, a 23-year-old economics student who declined to give his last name, told DW in the shopping district of the mostly-Catholic city, once famous for its oil industry. “These elections are very important because now many things will change.”
At the very least, the Netherlands is set to get a new principal. Mark Rutte of the center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), who has served as prime minister since 2010, is stepping down. Across the spectrum, there are many new faces at the helm of major parties.
In addition, three major party forces voted almost neck and neck, making a wide range of coalitions in the kaleidoscopic multiparty Dutch system possible after the vote on November 22.
Even voters with several elections under their belts, like 72-year-old librarian Rien Vissers, aren’t entirely sure. He himself is undecided between the center-left alliance of GroenLinks and Labor (PvdA), third in the poll, and the Christian democratic CDA, which is set to take a drubbing.
“I actually think it’s good for a more left-wing government to come in after all these years,” Vissers told DW in Tilburg. “On the other hand, the CDA is having a difficult time, but they are a good centrist party with a lot of experience in government.”
Back to the future with Pieter Omtzigt
Seen from the outside, the standout story of this Dutch election season has been the emergence of the New Social Contract (NSC), a conservative, centrist but anti-establishment party founded in August by a popular former CDA lawmaker. that Pieter Omtzigt.
The 49-year-old made a name for himself helping to expose the full extent of a child benefit scandal, which saw thousands of parents falsely accused of fraud. , often with devastating financial and personal consequences. Working with lawmakers from different parties, Omzigt’s tenacity alienated him from his party but endeared him to the public.
According to Leonie de Jonge, a political scientist from the University of Groningen, Omtzigt has built a strong profile “of being a watchdog of the government, who is very enthusiastic in parliament and asks the right questions, reads the document, and never let go. until he knows the answer.”
The NSC, which, again, has only existed for a few months, is currently tied for first in opinion polls with Rutte’s VVD at 18%, according to the news outlet Politico, although Omtzigt has stated that he is not should shoot for the premiership itself.
“He is very trusted,” de Jonge told DW. “And we in the Netherlands are experiencing a period of distrust in politicians after all the scandals that have happened.”
Omtzigt seems to be able to rebuild trust, with people seeing him “as a reasonable alternative to the status quo,” he said.
Anti-establishment appeal, no populism
One Tilburg resident who has already decided to vote for Omtzigt is 67-year-old Maarten van den Tillaart.
“Pieter’s got a new sound,” the former CDA local councilor told DW in a small political debate between the candidates. “He’s an honest politician. We’ve seen that in the past years.”
Given the Dutch public’s trust issues, one might expect voters to turn to figures who cast themselves as outsiders to a corrupt elite – a classic sign of populism. Indeed, the far-right populist Freedom Party, led by staunchly anti-Islam Geert Wilders, is now fourth in the polls with 13% – more than the last result in 2021, but more less than in 2017.
Omtzigt’s party was not the same race, although he positioned himself as speaking for the common people.
“[The NSC’s] The ideology is not populist, but it represents a movement that is dissatisfied with the established political system,” said Simon Otjes of Leiden University. “It is important to note that extremism and populism do not necessarily go together,” he added, pointing to other European examples such as the 5-Star Movement in Italy.
‘Riding the populist wave’
De Jonge sees things in common with Otjes. “[Omtzigt] seems to be riding the populist wave, because he is anti-establishment, but from the establishment,” he said.
What is interesting about Omtzigt for de Jonge is that he has attracted voters from the left, the center right and the far right. “That’s what makes him so strong,” he added.
Omtzigt’s prominence on the political scene also helped contribute to a calmer tone during the election, he said, as well as a greater focus on content.
The last election was held during the COVID pandemic in 2021. “The campaign used to be very personal, it was centered on leadership. Rutte ran empty-handed, but really only on his person [sic.]saying that I am the right leader to steer this ship in this crisis,” he said.
Personal style aside, Omtzigt’s exact politics are hard to pinpoint — to the right on immigration, but more to the left on welfare. On many issues, they are relatively unclear, according to de Jonge, perhaps not surprising given how new Omtzigt’s party is.
The NSC’s election program outlines plans to try to limit net inward migration to 50,000 people per year, about half of what it will be in 2021.
“We want fewer people to come here for asylum, study or work,” the party’s material said.
The NSC also wants to build more houses (a big issue in this election) and solve the cost of living problems for poor families.
A recipe for Europe?
With EU elections on the horizon for June 2024, the bigger question is whether Omtzigt’s rise can tell us anything about European politics at large. Support for populist parties, mostly on the right but also on the left, is on the rise in Europe. Recent elections in Italy and Sweden highlighted that trend, with Italy’s far-right Brothers and Sweden Democrats doing well.
Unfortunately for those hoping for a crystal ball or looking for a playbook to follow, Otjes and de Jonge strongly caution against seeing Omtzigt’s success as prescient for Europe more broadly.
“For me it’s a story about a certain Dutch politician with a certain political style,” Otjes said. “It’s not for me a good travel story.”
It is also worth noting that anything is possible after Wednesday. The new leader of Rutte’s outgoing premier’s party, Dilan Yesilgoz, appears more willing to work with Wilders than Rutte did, for example, de Jonge said.
Pleun, the economics student in Tilburg, sees these elections as higher stakes than previous ones. He will need more time to read before voting this time.
“I’m also very curious about what the outcome will be,” he said. “It’s very open and I don’t think anyone knows how it’s going to end. It’s exciting, really.”
Edited by: Carla Bleiker