Dutch politics: Not so Calvinist any more

Posted: October 4, 2013 in Economics, Politics
Tags: , ,

The Party of Freedom benefits from Dutch austerity fatigue

The price of recession

GEERT WILDERS, a far-right populist politician, has been stirring up Dutch politics for nearly a decade, but he has never lured many people onto the streets. Unlike more mainstream Dutch parties, Mr Wilders’s Party for Freedom (PVV) has no dues-paying members and propagates its anti-Islamic, anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic message largely through the media. But on September 21st, the PVV adopted a new tactic, staging a rally in The Hague to demand a halt to the Dutch government’s latest austerity measures.

According to the police, only a thousand demonstrators turned up. But the low turnout belies Mr Wilders’s popularity. With the Dutch public turning against EU-imposed austerity, the coalition government is paralysed. Polls suggest that if elections were held today the PVV, which calls for the Netherlands to block immigration and to withdraw from the euro and the EU, would come first.

This ideological vision has received mixed reviews. But the more pressing problem for Mr Rutte is that it is not clear he can get his budget approved. The increasingly queasy Liberal-Labour coalition has a narrow majority in the Dutch lower house, but not in the Senate. That leaves the government scrambling for the votes of opposition parties, none of which are eager to help. The leaders of two centrist parties have criticised the government’s budget fiercely for raising taxes and failing to invest in education. If it fails in the Senate, that may mean a cabinet reshuffle. Equally, budget defeat could lead to an early election for the third time in four years.

That option should terrify both the Liberals and Labour. After over a year of recession and austerity, polls show confidence in Mr Rutte’s government at a miserable 12%. On the right, small-business owners feel betrayed by a Liberal-led cabinet that has raised value-added tax and imposed a surtax on high incomes. On the left, union members are abandoning a Labour Party that has accepted lay-offs and pay freezes in the public sector.

The big winners of a tough year have been the parties that have consistently opposed austerity, above all the PVV. As the recession drags on, Mr Wilders, a master of political rhetoric, has capitalised on the crisis and austerity fatigue by savaging the EU, which demanded the extra €6 billion effort. Opinion polls now show the PVV getting over 20% of the vote.

The Dutch are a famously thrifty people and their government has been among Europe’s strongest advocates of austerity. But two years of cuts and recession have made a dent in these Calvinist attitudes: fully 80% of the public now thinks austerity is doing more harm than good. Mr Rutte’s unpopularity stems from his attempt to bring the government’s budget into line with the European Commission’s rules. But in order to get the budget passed, he will need to offer big concessions to centrist opposition parties. Should they flinch, the prospect of Mr Wilders winning the next elections ought to focus minds.

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