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Did the Netherlands halt populism? Political pluralism, religious diversity and the spirit of accommodation in 21st century Dutch politics

Date:24 March 2017
Author:Sanne Hupkes
Did the Netherlands halt populism?
Did the Netherlands halt populism?

Today’s post is the second article on the Dutch elections that were held last week written by Sanne Hupkes, this time a reaction to the results of the elections and the conclusions drawn from those by some Dutch politicians. Has populism actually been ‘halted’, as some claim? And is there something like ‘the wrong kind of populism’?

After Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, last week’s elections in the Netherlands were not only closely watched by the national press, but attracted a lot of international attention. The elections were considered by some to be a predictor for the forthcoming elections in France and Germany. The fact that Geert Wilders’ PVV did not become the largest political party last Wednesday was widely considered as a blow for the rise of populism across Europe and in the US. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose party VVD emerged as the largest party out of the elections, was praised by many for the result. Rutte himself proclaimed that ‘the Netherlands has halted the wrong kind of populism’.

Given the current phase of the political process in the Netherlands, the formation of a governing coalition, involving a lot of negotiation and compromise amongst the parties, this statement from Rutte is particularly intriguing. Although Wilders may have thought it to be possible, the chances of him becoming the next prime minister of the Netherlands were actually rather slim. As even Rutte’s VVD ruled out the possibility of ruling with the PVV and the fragmented political landscape in the Netherlands has necessitated the formation of coalitions for many decades, it seems unlikely that Wilders would have been able to bring together a government even if the PVV had emerged from the election as the largest party. Never since 1918 has a single political party formed the coalition. Even more so, coalitions consisting of three or more parties have been more common than coalitions consisting of two parties.

The formation of a cross-party coalition is an integral part of the political process in the Netherlands, and as such it deviates from a winner-takes-all system, such as is the case with US Presidential election process and was also the case in the Brexit referendum. In a pluralist political system that is most importantly  not  characterised by a winner-takes-all format, is it really appropriate to speak of the defeat or the halting of a particular political party, ideology or movement? Understanding the history of the multi-party system in the Netherlands, which has typically relied on cooperation instead of antagonism, helps us unpack the meaning behind Rutte’s claim about ‘the defeat of the wrong kind of populism’.

Social segmentation and political cooperation

The formation of a governing coalition has a long tradition in the Netherlands and is closely related to the religious diversity that already characterized the Netherlands in the early 20th century and continues to do so today. Cooperation between political elites of parties with different outlooks and ideologies has even been described in political theory as a phenomenon particular only to some smaller European countries for which the Netherlands is an exemplar case.[i] This type of political cooperation in the Netherlands was most characteristic for Dutch politics between 1918 and 1967 and is closely related to the pillarization of Dutch society. While society was ideologically and organisationally divided along religious and socio-economic lines into socialist, liberal, Catholic, and Protestant segments, at the government level interaction between political leaders was characterized by ‘a spirit of accommodation’. [ii]

Roughly between 1917 and 1967 Dutch politics was characterized by cooperation between political leaders representing the four pillars. The government functioned as an ‘honest broker’ balancing the interests of four pillars without allowing any particular ideology to dominate the others.[iii] This by the issue of state-funded education, that representatives of the four pillars wanted to be underpinned with respectively Protestant, Catholic, and secular outlooks. The issue was settled by granting state funding to secular public school as well as to ‘special’ religious schools.[iv] The interests and values of the two religious pillars were thus accommodated without the state being dominated by a particular religious or secular ideology.

The political system in the Netherlands has undergone substantial changes since then. The politics of accommodation in its strongest form has dissolved and coalitions have become ‘less inclusive, more politicized, and slightly less stable’.[v]   The slow process of dissolution of the pillars, or ‘de-pillarization’ as it is referred to, contributed to changing the voting behaviour of the Dutch. Religious parties have continued to participate in the political system, but have been accompanied by parties representing various other ideologies and interests. Generally, the number of parties present in parliament has grown significantly.[vi] This is exemplified by the steep increases and decreases in seats in parliament that parties may experience with an election. But also the large number of voters, allegedly even fifty percent, which indicates that up until shortly before voting many have not decided what they will vote. The Dutch also seem to be less deferent towards their political leaders now than they were between 1918 and 1967.

But, the heritage of the politics of accommodation is also still clearly visible in contemporary politics. There is still no winner-takes-all system, and the formation of a grand coalition including at least two, but often more, political parties, is an important part of the political process. Although the coalition formation process may seem inefficient, it serves a two-fold purpose. On the one hand, political stability and the continuity of governance are guaranteed through a process of finding compromise and agreement between coalition parties. On the other hand, both the parliament and the cabinet include a wide array of political parties. Where previously political parties roughly represented the four pillars, nowadays, in accordance with the de-pillarization of society, different ideologies inspire the political parties that make up the political landscape.[vii] Since the 1970s there has been a decline of the Christian parties, which were not even a part of the governing coalition during the 1990s, although parties with a Christian background still form an important part of the political landscape. Today, thirteen parties are represented in parliament. In order to achieve things, parties thus must consider more views than merely their own, making the process of political decision-making more inclusive.

Accommodating Difference

Among the new parties that have emerged in depillarized Dutch society is the populist PVV, founded by Wilders in 2006 after he left the VVD in 2004. The rise of populist movements has inspired many attempts to uncover the reasons for voting behaviour. Academics and journalists alike have attempted to unravel the attractive force of populist leaders and movements on their electorate. In attempts to understand (and presumably counter) populism, different causes have been ascribed to populism. Socio-psychological and economic causes have been prominent among the possible explanations. But, the support base of Geert Wilders includes people with different educational backgrounds and from diverging socio-economic environments. And although the majority of Trump-voters were white men and women, it would be far too simplistic to assume that only white men voted for Trump.

It is thus hard to pinpoint the exact reasons for people’s support for populists. Wilders’ own reasoning, although obviously politically motivated, seems to go a long way to pointing in the right direction: people do not feel like they are properly represented by their political leaders and the issues they experience in their daily lives are not addressed by their representatives in parliament. A comparison of different populist movements leads to an observation in a similar vein: populists often gain traction with a claim that resembles something like ‘we are also the people’.[viii] What is dangerous, and what could be argued to distinguish populists from other (radical) politicians, is that this claim can eventually be turned into ‘we are the people’. When populists are governing, this claim is used to justify reforms in the state structure that consolidate the power of populists and undermine the potential for dissenting voices. Anybody who does not identify with the image of the people invoked by populist leaders, or even anybody who does, but does not support far-reaching reforms of the state, is simply excluded from ‘the people’. This is what happens when Erdogan excludes his critics by asking them: ‘We are the people. Who are you?’

Leaving aside the question of the danger of populism, the idea that certain people feel like the issues they encounter in their daily lives are not the issues that politicians care about can be explained from this historical perspective. A strictly segmented society has changed to become more diffuse and the political landscape has responded accordingly, encompassing a broad range of political parties. Yet the mode of operation for political leaders seems to have remained largely the same. The deference towards politics and political leaders that characterised Dutch society during pillarization has declined, but political leaders still expect to conduct politics and enter into cooperation with other parties in a way that may be aimed primarily at political stability, but that does not give voters the feeling that it is their interests that politicians fight for.[ix] Rather, they seem to negotiate in the interests of the party, ensuring their presence and role in the governing coalition. From this perspective, it might be the case that Geert Wilders’ anti-elitism, his willingness to say what in the spirit of cooperation others have deemed inappropriate, has gained him as much support as his anti-immigration rhetoric.

The 2012 election campaign provides an example of this. After the campaign, in which PvdA and VVD were pitted against each other as the main competitors in the election, both parties entered into a governing coalition together. Despite the critiques this evoked, both parties considered their cooperation an important way of ‘building bridges’. The cooperation negatively affected the trust of people in their government as well as the probability that people who voted for the VVD or the PvdA would do that again. The PvdA’s massive loss of seats – from 38 in the 2012 election to just 9 in the 2017 election – can be partially attributed to this.[x]

Populism vs populism?

Has the Netherlands halted populism? Given what we know about the history of Dutch politics and parliamentary structures, this seems a difficult claim to substantiate. The PVV emerged out of the election as the second largest party – hardly a resounding defeat by anyone’s standards. Further, when proclaiming that the Netherlands halted the  wrong  kind of populism, Rutte did two important things that run counter to the idea of the plural multi-party system of the Netherlands. Firstly, he presented the halting of the rise of populism, and the election contest, as an either/or situation: you can either choose for the wrong kind of populism, or defeat it with the right kind of populism. The latter clearly refers to the VVD, which has not eschewed populist language – Rutte’s ‘act normal or go away’ statement made during the election campaign being the most obvious example. But the key issue is not that the VVD defeated the PVV in the election nor that populism has been defeated, as it clearly has not. The Netherlands political system simply has no winner-takes-all mechanism. On the one hand, the necessity of coalition formation makes it highly unlikely that any extreme political party, including the PVV, would be able to execute all its campaign promises. This is the after-election mechanism that prevents any party from governing alone in practice. On the other hand, the multi-party system leaves many options open for the Dutch voter. The populist alternative is less likely than in, for example, the US, to be the best of two equally bad alternatives in the perception of the voter. There is simply more to choose from. And as the latest election results show, Dutch voters make diverse decisions. Rather than being defeated, populism seems to be accommodated within the political system and thus is likely to continue to play an important role in politics.

The second thing that the statement does, is define the Netherlands vis-à-vis ‘the wrong kind of populism’ and thereby seemingly excluding the 1.3 million Dutch voters that did support the PVV from the Netherlands. This also runs counter to the inclusive politics that the multi-party system enables. What the election results show in this perspective, if anything, is that the Netherlands is politically very diverse. If populism is, at least partly, caused by a feeling of exclusion, it is this diversity that should be celebrated in the light of populist victories elsewhere in the world instead of attempting to translate this diversity into an us/them proposition.

Without idealizing the politics of accommodation that has shaped the Dutch political system, what can we learn from it? Elite cooperation is a big advantage as well as a danger. The danger lies in a disconnection between political leaders and their electorate when campaign promises are abandoned for the sake of cooperation. The secrecy that characterized the behaviour of political elites during pillarization is not desirable. But elite cooperation itself is not a bad thing. It allows for a broad range of outlooks and ideologies to be represented both in parliament and the governing coalition, and it protects against the possibility of a majority dominating minorities in the light of a strongly plural society. Historically, it has ensured religious parties’ representation in government and nowadays continues to accommodate religious worldviews as well as other outlooks.

Interestingly, however, in light of Wilders anti-Islam politics and the Dutch politics of accommodating religious parties, no Islamic party has found its way into the Dutch parliament yet. Although the Netherlands has a history of accommodating religious views and interests in politics without letting them dominate alternative voices, the political system succeeds at accommodating certain religious outlooks better than others, begging the question whether a bias towards particular worldviews is not inherent to the system. If this is the case, the bias seems to be the reverse of the supposed bias Wilders is acting out against. Although not framing itself as an Islamic party, the political party DENK that participated in the elections for the first time this year, may begin testing the inclusivity of the Dutch politics of accommodation.

Whereas Rutte seems to suggest that there is a clear and coherent ‘Netherlands’ that halted populism, it actually seems that diversity is key. In the light of a long tradition of a politics of accommodation, it seems better to emphasize pluralism than to evoke a strong common political agenda, that, on the basis of the election results, does not even seem to exist. If people have the possibility to choose leaders that they feel will actually represent them and their interests, in other words, if diversity is stimulated at the popular level as well as practiced at the political level through inclusive politics, we may not need a ‘good’ populist leader to heroically halt ‘bad’ populism.

Sanne Hupkes is a PhD Student at the Faculty of Philosophy and the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen.

[i] Lijphart, Arend (1967)  The Politics of Accommodation: Pluralism and Democracy in the Netherlands . Berkely: University of California Press
Lijphart’s book is a pivotal work in political theory contributing to the understanding of the relationship between pluralism or segmentation and democratic stability.

[ii] Lijphart (1967) coined this term to describe what in political theory has also been referred to as ‘consociation’.

[iii] P.J. Oud (1946)  Honderd jaren. Hoofdzaken der Nederlandsche staatkundige geschiedenis 1840-1940 . Assen: Van Gorcum & Comp.

[iv] Lijphart, Arend (1967)  The Politics of Accommodation: Pluralism and Democracy in the Netherlands . Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 100-104

[v] Andweg, Rudy (2008) ‘Coalition Politics in the Netherlands: from Accommodation to Politicization’,  Acta Politica , 43(2): 254-277


[vii] Middendorp, C.P. ( 1979)  Ontzuiling, politisering en restauratie in Nederland , Amsterdam: Boom

[viii] Müller, Jan Werner (2016)  What is populism?  Philadelphia: university of Pennsylvania Press

[ix] Van Reybrouck, David (2013)  Tegen Verkiezingen,  Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij

[x] Interestingly, and for various reasons, in the latest elections this seem true only for the PvdA and not for the VVD. See for example


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