Earlier this month, Amsterdam narrowly escaped catastrophic flooding.
Storm Ciarán dumped so much rain on the Dutch capital, which lies two metres below sea level, that people close to the city’s main waterway saw water lapping against their souterrain windows. The NRC, one of the Netherland’s newspapers of record, reported one resident joked he could see “fish swimming by.”
The only thing that prevented an ordinary November morning morphing into a calamity were just a few men pushing the flood-control buttons (and promptly fixing a malfunctioning sluice).
This somehow reflects what the Netherlands in 2023 is all about: a country in denial that, by a hair’s breadth, plus a tradition of punctiliousness, scrapes by and prevents public services from breaking down entirely — despite years of neglect and austerity imposed by prime minister Mark Rutte’s first three governments.
I say denial because the capital’s near-flooding barely received any media attention at all outside of that NRC article — published two weeks later.
In fact, climate change (or flood protection) is not a prominent election topic among lead contenders at all this year. Out of the four top polling parties, climate change only features prominently in the Labour-Green campaign led by former EU heavyweight Frans Timmermans, who was Green Deal commissioner before leaving Brussels to return to Dutch politics in August.
As EUobserver previously reported, one of the buzzwords defining these elections is ‘bestaanszekerheid,’ a term that translates to “livelihood security.” A topic Labour-Green traditionally excels in and has now promised to rebuild by investing more in the welfare state.
Livelihood security is determined by more than income and work; it depends on a set of interconnected and interdependent assets and conditions that make up a life worth living.
This includes affordable housing and social capital gained from intact local communities that need things like decent healthcare, education or a park bench to sustain it. Things Timmermans has promised to invest more in.
His party, a new coalition between the Green Left and the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA), briefly shot up in the polls when the new alliance was announced in August.
That immediately made him a contender for the top spot. And when he attended the annual congress of the European Socialists in Málaga just over a week ago, he was hailed as the Netherlands’ new prime minister in all but name.
But all is not well on the socialist front.
‘Timmermans Effect’ not working?
“It’s clear that the campaign isn’t progressing in the way [the new left] expected,” political scientist Simon Otjes told EUosberver.
The hoped-for ‘Timmermans-effect’, that resulted in a doubling of the Socialist & Democrats vote in the 2019 European Parliamentary elections has not translated back to the national stage. Like in previous campaigns, the EU has barely featured as a topic during these elections, making it more difficult for Timmermans to point to past successes.
“The EU traditionally is an unpopular election topic. The cliché has it that voters tend to change channels if the EU is mentioned,” said Otjes.
In the final stretch of the Dutch elections, the narrative has taken hold that the former Green Deal chief is not pulling his weight (pun not intended, although Timmermans’ weight has been the butt of jokes on national television on multiple occasions.)
His party — now polling at 16 percent — is back at the level it was before the parties merged and he announced his candidacy.
He is now projected to rank fourth this week, trailing the liberal VVD (caretaker prime minister Mark Rutte’s party now led by Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius), the openly anti-Islam Party for Freedom led by Geert Wilders and the New Social Contract, a breakaway party founded only in August by Pieter Omtzigt, a former long-serving member of parliament for the centre-right CDA.
Even though Omtzigt has been in politics for over 20 years, he has successfully managed to launch a “challenger campaign,” said Otjes.
“The Netherlands traditionally has had a centre-right majority,” he said. The only time it has had a solidly leftwing government was in the mid-1970s.
The way Labour has traditionally dealt with that fact has essentially consisted of the same two ingredients for decades.
First, by positioning itself as the only feasible leftwing alternative able to govern. And second: by centring the campaign around who will become prime minister.
The dynamic the Green Labour campaign team had clearly hoped for, however, has not materialised and is now instead characterised by a challenger versus the establishment, which puts the highly-experienced Timmermans at a disadvantage.
“Omtzigt has completely altered the political landscape,” he said.
Who is actually ‘the outsider’?
The lack of enthusiasm for Timmermans may, in part, be ascribed to voters seeking a different face rather than proven leadership.
Yet Yeşilgöz-Zegerius leads a party that has been in power for 26 out of the past 29 years — a fact she expertly has managed to conceal during debates.
Omtzigt, the main challenger, has been in politics for over 20 years and is the second-longest-sitting MP and one of the most experienced politicians in the country.
Meanwhile, Wilders, who wants the Netherlands to leave the EU, is currently polling as the number one in some forecasts.
Wilders, whom nobody wanted to invite into government for years, has changed his tune somewhat to appear ‘milder’ and increase his chances of governing. He also positions himself as an outsider. In fact, he is now the longest-sitting MP in the 150-seat parliament.
Yet it was Timmermans who was attacked in a televised debate by all of the above for being the perennial insider — somebody who, as Wilders described it, has “lost grip on reality.”
Intellectually, many social democrats may have expected these elections to feel more like a home game. “We can definitely beat them,” one campaigner told EUobserver anonymously, referring to the far-right.
And there is a belief that leftwing topics are popular.
Timmermans campaigned on a ticket to raise the minimum wage, protect the climate and raise taxes for multinational corporations and shareholders, proposals ostensibly not a difficult sell in one of the most unequal countries in Europe.
But with polling numbers trending down, a vocal group of (former) party members are panicking, calling out Timmermans on social media for being too centrist, although it is unclear whether that would shift the balance at this late stage.
“The left, to a degree, has lost its touch on subjects relating to the welfare state and security of livelihood,” said Andrej Zaslove, an assistant professor of comparative politics at Radboud University. Labour is still blamed for the austerity imposed by Rutte’s second government, which included the Labour Party then led by Diederik Samsom, who later became Timmermans’ cabinet chief in Brussels.
A further challenge facing the left is that ‘bestaansrecht’, the word meant to encapsulate the social democratic ideals into a bitesize bit, has lost meaning.
Last Thursday night (16 November) the top four candidates confronted each other, to discuss their plans for the country’s future.
Although the debate quickly devolved into a confused and shameful mud-slinging contest, it became clear that all major parties had annexed ‘bestaanszekerheid’ as the central campaign theme — just interpreting it differently.
While the VVD applies the term to mean lower taxes for “hard-working people,” the liberal-left D66 associates it with the right to determine the end of life.
Wilders has promised to scrap health insurance costs — a promise his opponents say lacks financial backing — and Omtzigt keeps repeating the word, although its meaning is somewhat elusive.
“I have no clue what he means with it,” Zaslove told EUobserver.
But that may not matter that much for regular voters. “They trust him. People who are generally distrustful of politicians believe he is not the type that likes to be driven around by a chauffeur,” said Otjes.
“Much can still change in the final days before the elections,” added Otjes, a view echoed by most polling experts. With Wilders now a contender for the top spot, Timmermans, who has repeatedly said “he does not want to wake up in a country where [Wilders party] is number one,” may attract strategic anti-Wilders votes.
“I expect that we will see more strategic votes,” said Peter Kanne, senior researcher at I&O Research, one of the principal Dutch polling agencies.
“In the previous elections, it leaned towards D66 and Sigrid Kaag; this time, it could go towards GreenLeft-PvdA. I expect a small surprise on the left,” he said.