Surprise Election Results In The Netherlands

The social democratic PvdA has come out as the surprise winner of the EP elections in the Netherlands. Also, the election results seem to refute the theory of political debate swallowed up by the radical right, yet without increasing support for the radical left. The left Socialist Party loses its two seats and the Party for the Animals loses one seat. 

     Seats in EP. Exit poll by Ipsos


Success of the Social Democrats

The social democratic PvdA has come out as the surprise winner of the EP elections in the Netherlands. Based on the provisional results of 27 May 2019, the PvdA won 18,9 % of the votes. The PvdA sees its EP faction expand from 3 to 6 parliamentarians (out of 26 Dutch MEPs), becoming the largest EP faction from the Netherlands. Doubling its votes compared to the EP elections of 2014 (9.4%), and tripling the results of the disastrous 2017 national elections (5.7%) which left the PvdA decimated after four years in government, the PvdA’s campaign is widely interpreted to have profited from the visibility of Frans Timmermans as the most important Dutch politician in the EU.

Timmermans headed the PvdA’s list as the ‘Spitzenkandidat’ of the European social democrats. In contradistinction to the campaigns of other Dutch parties (primarily on the right), this gave his campaign a clear European dimension. Timmermans moreover campaigned with a clear – and European – political vision, and was widely regarded to perform well in several debates with other European Spitzenkandidaten, most noticeably with Manfred Weber (EPP).

The PvdA’s resurrection after 2017 once again attests to the extreme volatility of the Dutch political landscape. Yet the spectacular rise in support for the PvdA is remarkable for more reasons. It comes after an election campaign that was very slow to set off properly, and was then first marked by the Socialist Party’s direct attack on the PvdA, and later by the attempt of the ruling VVD and newcomer (and big winner of the March 2019 provincial elections) Forum voor Democratie (FvD) to turn the elections into a battle between right and radical right.


Overall election results

The overall election results[2] show a slight increase in support for center parties with a (moderate) pro-European agenda, with a voter turnout of 41.9 % (the highest in European elections after 1989). Next to the PvdA, also the ruling liberal VVD won one seat (from 3 to 4; although it had hoped to win by bigger margins), as did the Greens (GroenLinks; from 2 to 3).

The victory of the radical right FvD (entering the EP for the first time with 3 seats) comes at the cost of the PVV, which (for now) leaves the EP[3]; and is moreover less big as expected (opinion polls before the elections projected the party to win 4 to 5 seats).

GUE/NGL member the Animal Party (PvdD) has managed to keep its seat in the EP with ca. 4% of the votes. Although this is a slight decrease from the 4.2% of the votes in 2014, it constitutes a rise in support compared to the 2017 national elections (3.19%) and the provincial elections of March 2019 (3,46%). Initial exit polls suggested that the PvdD might lose its seat in the EP; that this is not the case is is an important victory for the party, whose leader, Marianne Thieme, has over the past years invested considerable effort in building up a European network of animal parties.

Yet the preliminary results also showed that GUE/NGL member the Socialist Party obtained 3,4% of the votes, leading to a loss of both its seats in the EP.


The Socialist Party: new political course did not pay off

After losses in the 2017 national elections, the SP embarked on a new political strategy ahead of the 2019 provincial and EP elections. In particular, the party openly voiced its intention to re-win protest voters that had over the past years moved to parties that were more vocally anti-establishment, and with a more outspoken agenda on refugee- and migrant issues. Yet party members remain very divided on this issue, leading to tensions. In its campaign the SP pointed to the problem of European migrants as a source of displacement of local workers on the labor market.  Moreover, in the run-up to the EP elections, a new party line was adopted that no longer excluded deals similar to the 2016 EU-Turkey deal with North African parties in the future, despite the SP’s erstwhile opposition to this deal. Although this is partly a ‘toughening’ of the party line, these standpoints are however not really new, and can in fact also be seen as a continuation of the SP’s focus on (the concerns of) primarily Dutch workers. Thus the toughening of the line in many ways signals a return to old standpoints that remained present throughout. Yet under Emile Roemer (2010-2017), they were less visible, and several SP politicians presented a more inclusive alternative that many members (but not the majority) found attractive. The attempt to re-tighten control over the party’s standpoint on migrant issues also means that this issue is now debated – which has led to more open discussions, but also to more visible disagreements, within the SP.

The SP moreover attempted to bolster its image as a protest party with a campaign video that personally attacked Frans Timmermans as the personification of the Brussels bureaucracy. The video shows a fictional character named “Hans Brusselmans” who “wants a European super-state”, plays piano underneath a portrait of Juncker, throws (anti-EU) referendum results in the fireplace, and literally ‘eats up’ the Netherlands – in the form of a cake; while already eyeing the cakes of other countries placed on the table before him.[4] The video was remarkable as so far personal attacks on other politicians have been a rarity in Dutch campaigns, and it was heavily criticized for this by observers. Party members were divided over the choice to attack Timmermans, and thus the PvdA (at that point by no means the obvious winner of the elections). Some members applauded the bold ‘rebel character’ of the campaign, while other members criticized the choice for negative campaigning, and were disappointed that with the populist and ‘too nationalist’ campaign message.

Although the video undoubtedly increased the visibility of the SP in the campaign period, its effects were thus at best mixed. The spot does not seem to have attracted many voters, and it might also have increased support for Timmermans.


FvD and the struggle for voters on the right

After the March 2019 provincial election victory of the FvD, most media attention focused on the struggle between the ruling VVD and this newcomer on the right. This effect was consciously sought after by both the VVD and the FvD, which in this manner attempted to increase media attention for their respective parties. Opinion research of Maurice de Hond in mid-April already suggested that the FvD was unlikely to further expand its voter base on the costs of other parties than the PVV.[5] The sought-after battle thereby constituted an attempt of the VVD to attract voters from other parties of the center and the center-right as the ‘reasonable alternative’ to the FvD. As a result, voters witnessed a rather artificial EP campaign, in which much attention was in fact given to the national leaders of two national parties concerned with the new national balance of power after March 2019 – and not so much with European politics. This resulted in a televised debate between PM Mark Rutte (VVD) and FvD leader Thierry Baudet on the evening before the elections that completely overshadowed the debate between European party leaders that took place earlier that same evening.

The outcome of this debate was mixed. It demonstrated Baudet’s lack of serious ideas on European policy (besides an unrealistic exit from the EU) as well as his lack of empathy (asking Rutte when he had last cried about something that happened in his personal life and then wrongly repeating when Rutte’s sister had died). At the same time, Rutte did little to attack Baudet’s xenophobic and sexist statements, even though these had come under increasing scrutiny in the weeks before the debate. Thus, when Rutte asked Baudet about his position that women are ‘less ambitious’ and ‘want to do family-things’, Baudet came away with replying that the FvD “is the most female-friendly party of the Netherlands. I love women. Women are crazy about us.” Likewise, Rutte at several points failed to invalidate Baudet’s conspiracy theories, thereby giving those a semblance of seriousness.

In the end, however, the attempt to define the European elections through this struggle on the right largely failed. Although the VVD increased its support base in comparison to the 2014 EP elections (from 3 to 4 seats), and managed to attract more voters than FvD (3 seats) this time, the party won less than it had expected. The same counts for the FvD, which vote win seems to have come primarily at the cost of the PVV that loses its entire European faction.

Combined with the victory of the PvdA, the election results thus seem to refute the continued swallowing up of the political debate by the radical right, yet without increasing support for the radical left.

    1. An earlier version of this article was based on the exit polls conducted on election day (26 May 2019), which constituted a margin of error of about 1 seat – which turned out to be crucial for SP and PvdD. The preliminary results used in this article are based on 98.5% of the votes counted. Final results of the Dutch EP elections will be publicized on 4 June.
    2. NOS: Bijna alle stemmen geteld: PvdA 6 zetels, PVV en SP verdwijnen uit Europees Parlement.  BINNENLAND
    3. Based on current calculations, the PVV is expected to return in the EP on one of the three extra seats that will go to the Netherlands once the Brexit is finalized; while the other seats are currently expected to go to VVD and FvD.
    4. The video can be found here
    5. NO TIES: De Stemming van 14 april 2019