‘We do reasonable’ so why are Dutch voters abandoning the centre ground?

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After years of backing catch-all centre parties, many in the Netherlands are turning towards to anti-politics-as-usual alternatives for the 15 March election

In Purmerend on market day, there is little to suggest the Netherlands may be on the brink of a populist uprising. Little, even, to show the country is days from an election widely portrayed though not, on the whole, by the Dutch as the next step in the overthrow of the liberal world order.

On Kaasmarkt, a queue waits patiently in the shadow of the Niklaas church to be served at the stall of Beuse, cheesemongers since 1928. On Koemarkt, the 15th-century cattle market that is now the towns main square, shoppers sip strong coffee in weak sunshine outside Caf Aad de Wolf, talking about anything but politics.

Its a bit strange, said Annemarie Akkerman, 38, a pharmaceuticals manager and liberal VVD party voter. We get the BBC and some US channels on the cable, you know, and theyre all like, thats it, the Dutch are next in line, for sure. And were: this is Holland, you know? We dont do that. We do reasonable.

But for all the bemusement of many Dutch voters at the global spotlight on the far right, anti-Islam Geert Wilders and the chances of his Freedom party (PVV) winning the parliamentary election on 15 March and prolonging the populist insurgency begun by the Brexit vote and Donald Trump, this remains a very strange election.

A PVV victory is still conceivable, although after leading the polls for nearly two years the party has now slipped to second behind the VVD of prime minister Mark Rutte whose overtly uncompromising stance in a diplomatic spat with Turkey this weekend will have done him no harm at all with voters tempted by Wilders anti-Islam rhetoric.

As many as 40% of voters are still undecided; as many as 15% will not make up their mind until voting day. But even if the PVV does finish top, Wilders is unlikely to enter government: no other major party will work with him.

The deeper story in the Netherlands is one of voters abandoning en masse the mainstream parties of centre right and centre left that have governed the country for the past half-century, and turning instead to an astonishing array of smaller, newer, anti-politics-as-usual parties from across the political spectrum.

With seats distributed by direct proportional representation and 70,000 votes enough to give a party one of parliaments 150 seats, the Dutch political landscape has never looked so fractured. A record 14 parties could end up with at least one MP, eight with 10 or more and six including the PVV with up to 25.

The party of Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, is the favourite to win the upcoming election. Photograph: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

Wilders will still be way short of the 76 seats needed for a majority. But even if, as seems most likely, he is effectively locked out of government, a bigger anti-establishment genie is out of the bottle. That could make building a coalition and sustaining a stable government a long and tricky job.

Purmerend is half an hour north of Amsterdam in the polders, the low-lying land reclaimed from water that dominates northern Holland. Round a fine old centre of bricks and gables have sprouted new neighbourhoods of smart, low-rise apartment blocks and neat townhouses with well-tended gardens. The town has grown quickly in recent decades, from 10,000 inhabitants in the 1960s to 80,000 today.

Purmerend locator

It is a thoroughly representative Dutch town. Unemployment stands at 6% and immigrants make up 25% of the population. Purmerend is averagely prosperous, averagely safe and politically average. The last time it voted, in the provincial election of 2015, Wilders PVV finished on top with 18% of the vote.

Dutch elections

Why would nearly one-fifth of the electorate of a town such as this in a strong economy, low-unemployment country such as this vote for a man like Wilders, whose one-page election manifesto includes pledges to close mosques and Islamic schools, ban sales of the Quran, bar Muslim immigrants and take the Netherlands out of the EU?

Were ashamed of the man, said Irene Muusze, 71, walking across Kaasmarkt with her partner, Johan Helffer, 69. Both will be voting for the progressive, eco-friendly Green-Left party next week. Hes shameless, Muusze added. He knows how to wind people up. Thats all.

What Helffer objected to, he said, was that Wilders, and a fair few of the other outliers and popups on the ballot paper, such as Denk, aimed at Moroccan and Turkish immigrants, and the arch-Eurosceptic Forum for Democracy (FvD), is a polariser. A divider. And thats not the Dutch way. We are compromisers. Always have been.

But for many in the Netherlands now, polarity is the attraction. The endless and amorphous compromise of Dutch politics is driving voters, in Purmerend and across the country, not just to Wilders, but to parties such as the radical Socialists, the socially progressive liberals of D66 and the fast-growing Green-Left.

To anywhere, in short, but the traditional, catch-all centre parties. There was a time, back in the 1980s, when the Netherlands Christian and social democrats CDA and PvdA could comfortably count on more than 50 MPs each. This year, they will do well to muster 30 between them.

By the free-market 1990s, with politics shifting to the right, the CDA had largely given way to the far more economically liberal VVD, but it too had no trouble governing with the PvdA. In a country governed for more than a century by coalitions, the parties of the centre have become, to many, indistinguishable.

Everything could be rationalised away, said Purmerends avuncular mayor, Don Bijl from the VVD, in the town hall. And it was. People felt lost. The traditional parties couldnt give answers people understood. No one knew what anyone stood for. Governing became about efficiency, technocracy, management.

An election poster in Rotterdam. Even if Wilderss PVV finishes top, other major parties have ruled out working with him. Photograph: Bas Czerwinski/EPA

But it was not all about that. Society was also changing, Bijl said, in ways some people did not like. In Purmerend, there are a lot of people who moved out of Amsterdam because, well, they felt their neighbourhoods had changed. Moroccan families had moved there; their streets no longer felt the same, he said.

Now theyre here and they dont want it to happen again. All our surveys show people are happy here good social provision, no real poverty, minimal crime. But some people in Purmerend will vote for the PVV not because they are unhappy, but because they are happy, and afraid of losing it.

That could be one reason why, at the height of Europes refugee crisis in late 2015, there were protests, and some riots, in several Dutch towns at government plans to build large-scale asylum-seekers centres. Arie-Wim Boer, a local councillor who led the opposition in Purmerend, insisted it was not down to anti-Muslim sentiment.

It was just bad communications, said Boer, whose party is called Leefbaar (Livable) Purmerend. There was no prior consultation, no community involvement. We had serious questions about location, access, impact. And about this towns 10-year waiting list for social housing for young people.

Finally, after a meeting so heated the police were called, the council voted against the centre. There were cheers from a few, Boer said. Our country for us, that sort of thing. But you get some of that everywhere. And I told them lots of people told them: thats not what this is about. Really.

It is, of course, hard to know how far that is true. Surveys suggest that while the generally open and tolerant Dutch care more than most European nations about preserving their customs and lifestyle, they sympathise with genuine refugees: a 2015 survey found 70% would accept an asylum centre in their town.

The migration crisis has, in any event, now largely receded, and with it, steadily, popular support for Wilders, sliding since December. Refugees are still a talking point, though probably not to the extent he would want.

In Purmerend, few seemed happy to say Wilders had their vote. The others have just broken too many promises, and done nothing, said one middle-aged man, who asked not to be named. I could vote PVV. But I wouldnt expect Wilders to be prime minister. That would not be good.

Wilders, whose party is anti-EU and anti-Islam, talks to supporters while a man holds a sign saying refugees welcome. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

However he performs, the broader anti-establishment discontent the blond populist has helped fuel clearly remains. By international standards, the Dutch are well-off and well looked-after: healthy economy, high employment, relative equality, enviable welfare state.

But it depends what your reference point is, said Gijs Schumacher, a political scientist at the University of Amsterdam. Dutch voters dont compare themselves to people in other countries, Schumacher said.

They compare themselves to themselves, but back in the 1990s before the financial crisis and September 11. Objectively, things may be good, but its all really about perceptions.

And against that background, the outliers among the Netherlands huge array parties 28 are running in all offer a promise, however false, of protection, said Andr Krouwel of Amsterdams Free University: for Dutch culture, wages, rents, pensions even for animals.

Voters simply no longer trust the traditional parties to look after them, Krouwel said. And in times like this, people who feel vulnerable, who are angry and worried, want to feel taken care of. They are drawn to an alternative party.

The question that begs is how far, and on what, the five parties polls suggest will have to work together to form the Netherlands next government will be able to agree. Wilders or no Wilders, Dutch politics could be about to become a good deal less reasonable than it once was.

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