The new populist Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) came out on top in March's Dutch election, but the global distribution of power in the Netherlands remains unchanged. And there will be hardly room for implementing urgent reforms, especially in the areas of climate protection and agriculture.
Jacob Isaakszoon van Ruisdael, View of Haarlem with bleaching fields, late
Source: Wikimedia Commons
No skies are as whimsical as those above the Netherlands. In the past those skies have been a principal inspiration for Dutch painters from Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/29-1682) to Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890).
Going further back in history they serve as a proper metaphor for the many religious twists and factions that divided the country since the reformation. In recent years, however, their capriciousness and unpredictability may well be compared to subsequent Dutch election outcomes.
In the past century, Dutch politics was characterised by four so-called pillars: a socialist, liberal, catholic and protestant one..
When the representatives of the latter two pillars merged into one party, people used to speak of a “three-stream” country. But as politics became more fragmented the political landscape turned into a ‘delta’ with main streams (currently only the free-market conservative VVD) and side streams (the other parties).
In the recent election, however, the best metaphors for Dutch politics were based not on water but on the atmosphere. The campaign for last month’s election (of the Provinces that subsequently elect the senate), for example, began when prime minister Mark Rutte (VVD) warned for what he called "the leftist cloud". Rutte was referring mainly to the joint group formed by the GroenLinks (GreenLeft, GL) and the Social Democratic Partij van de Arbeid (Labour Party, PvdA) in the First Chamber (the Dutch Senate) — where the newly elected delegates of the provincial states will soon be sitting. His attack on the left did not convince many, largely because his governing coalition cooperated with the "left-wing cloud" on most policies and legislative amendments. The VVD has however somewhat succeeded in sidelining most other right-wing parties.
But air also dominated the last campaign in a very different way: The "nitrogen debate" caught all the attention. In the Netherlands, it has become clear over the last four years that, in order to preserve the environment and biodiversity, the country must reduce the amount of nitrogen in the air by cutting its livestock population by at least half. Concretely, this means closing a whole number of “megafarms” and buying out many farmers.
Although livestock numbers had doubled since 2010, most production is for export, and one in five farmers is a millionaire, these policies are welcomed with much resistance. In part because of simply poor and inconsistent policies, in part because many medium-sized farmers have large obligations to banks that become harder to meet if they produce on a small scale.
Feed manufacturers and rich farmers (1 in 5 is a millionaire!) forced the nitrogen issue to the top of the agenda with the help of consulting and marketing firms.
But the measures are especially consequential for cattle food producing companies. Halving the livestock means they lose a large part of their sales. To prevent that, cattle food producers (some of them family firms owning over a billion) have provided plenty of financial support to various organisations and action groups that in turn initiated tractor blockades on highways and in provincial capitals. A marketing agency was also hired to orchestrate and coordinate the PR of the activists so that the nitrogen issue was at the top of the agenda this election.1
As a consequence, this election was won by a party named the BoerBurgerBeweging (BBB) which translates to the Farmer-Citizens Movement. The founding story of this party is not quite what one would expect in what is, according to some indices, one of the best functioning democracies in the world: the party was founded in 2018 by a marketing agency with many agricultural clients - including Bayer and its subsidiary Monsanto - to promote agricultural interests.
The party narrowly won one seat in the House of Representatives in 2021, which was taken up by their leader Caroline van der Plas. The choice for Van der Plas - single mother, former candidate for the Christian-Democratic Appeal (CDA) and journalist for an agricultural magazine - turned out to be a strategic masterstroke. With her sober, down-to-earth appearance she proved a pleasant variation on the stilted verbal violence with which her (mostly male) electoral competitors entered the political arena. At the same time, like other radical right-wing parties, she does not shy away from fact-free claims that nature or biodiversity is doing quite well in the Netherlands.
BBB navigates a thin line between the radical right that attempts to present itself as a rebel against the establishment and the Christian Democracy of the CDA, which formed the heart of the establishment only just over a decade ago. In this way, the BBB fishes from two electoral ponds: on the one hand that of the nationalist right and on the other hand that of conservatives and Christian Democrats. The BBB appeals to nostalgic-nationalist sentiments by pretending to be the guardians of the traditional Dutch landscape. Yet, while they are more right-wing than the coalition parties when it comes to environmental policies, they regularly vote along with left-wing parties on social themes.
In that sense, the party is very similar to what the CDA once was, which in turn, saw indeed a large part of the already considerably reduced base leave for BBB. This is not very surprising because the Christian-Democrats are currently led by a former McKinsey-consultant that had made a career at Shell and whose name showed up in the Pandora Papers because he partly owned a mailbox company in the Virgin Islands. As easy as it is to identify with the leader of BBB, so difficult is it to identify with the Christian-Democrats whose leaders were historically more embedded in civil society than in the market.
The last election, however, was not only marked by the rise of the BBB and the slow implosion of the CDA. It also confirmed the role played by the media in setting the political agenda and defining which players are on top of the game as well as which observers are allowed to attend. Newsrooms decided not to dwell too much on the soaring inflation, nor on the growing number of economically fragile people, nor on layoffs at Schiphol airport, nor on the damning parliamentary inquiry into gas drilling in Groningen which had been recently published2. No. They focused instead on nitrogen and the urban-rural divide, which proved to be to the advantage of BBB top candidates. The non-transparent decision to pay so much attention to the nitrogen issue is as disingenuous as the political commentators who indulged in this practice themselves then afterwards, during the campaign review, pretended to be surprised at the importance given to it, refusing to acknowledge their responsibility for it.
The ambiguous role of the media is nothing new. Four years ago, various press outlets had endeavoured to introduce Thierry Baudet to Dutch audiences in a very messianic way despite numerous warnings and obvious clues that his conversation was marred by serious fascism. This led to his electoral victory. His party, the Forum voor Démocratie (FvD, Forum for Democracy), instantly took the lead with just under 15% of the vote. When it later came out for certain that many of Baudet’s opinions indeed were racist (and, as PvdA leader Attje Kuiken put it during the last electoral campaign, "that he kept a pair of brown boots in his closet"), this did not apparently bother much the national public broadcaster nor other outlets3. Recently, BBB attracted all the attention and got more than 20% of the vote, while the FvD looked like a shadow of its former self with only 3.5%, a dramatic drop compared to its score four years ago.
"You never tire of the Dutch sky", one can often hear. If ever this was true of the Dutch elections as well, people are now getting increasingly weary and tired of them. New right-wing (radical) parties emerge one after the other and enjoy a short-lived heyday, then they hand over to the next "rising star" on the right — Fortuyn, Widers, Baudet and, currently, Van der Plas.
One million Dutch people live below the poverty line, 60% are economically vulnerable, yet there is no real move towards an efficient political outrage that could make a difference.
At the start of every election, we collectively speculate about who will be "the greatest". Then, we parse and analyse the ballots to understand each party’s outcome. This tends to make us forget that politics is not only about "who is the winner". Parliamentary majorities and the policies they pursue have far-reaching consequences for people, for society, and for the environment. In recent years, the shift to the right of these majorities has resulted socially and environmentally at best in a status quo, but more often in a regression. It recently appeared that one million Dutch (out of 17 million) live below the poverty line, that 42% of households faced payment difficulties in 2022, and that six households in ten were economically vulnerable4. One could think that the conditions are ripe for strong class-based politics, but, strangely enough, there is still so far no movement expressing political outrage while mobilising large crowds. On the one hand, this is because social mobilisations generally receive very poor media coverage, and on the other hand, because left-wing political discourse remains highly unsatisfying.
The Social Democrats (PvdA) and the GroenLinks — the so-called "left-wing cloud" —present themselves primarily as custodians of the status quo protecting the existing consensus against attacks from the far right. However, little by little, they seem to be realising that, if they want to go beyond that status quo, they must advocate for a more ambitious social and environmental agenda and, above all, that they must not preach unity at every turn, but instead should confront capital for exploiting people and the environment. Pointing the finger at a culprit, an adversary, an enemy even, is exactly what the rising right excels at — and where the somewhat lenient left misses the mark.
Pointing the finger at a culprit, an adversary, an enemy even, is exactly what the rising right excels at and where the somewhat lenient left misses the mark.
The socialistische Partij (Socialist party, SP), which was once a major source of inspiration for the PTB in Belgium, would be a natural candidate to champion a consistent class agenda. Yet, this party shows reluctance towards any innovative policy and prefers to attack both the capitalist right and the "elitist left" —a parallel can be drawn here with the anti-"woke" campaign in Belgium5.
During the last six elections (local, national, and European), the party has been led by Lilian Marijnissen, the daughter of party founder Jan Marijnissen. She was elected in 2017 to the top position via the priority queue. Meanwhile, several members have been excluded for being too radical, "wardrobe communists" according to the party, and the SP also broke with the youth movement Rood6.
The eloquent Lilian Marijnissen is a frequent guest on television, mostly on right-wing news programmes. She regularly advocates a freeze on migration in order to prevent continued wage stagnation and shows little empathy for migrants seeking a better life for themselves or their family7.
Since many economically vulnerable people are from an immigrant background, her language has little resonance with the working class, which her party yet endeavours to win over. As a visible consequence, the PS has dramatically lost support and failed in six consecutive elections.
Cultural politics therefore still dominates in the Netherlands, as shows for example D66’s leader Sigrid Kaag being greeted by an infuriated crowd waving torches during her visit to a village in the Overijssel province (BBB's cradle), or as illustrates the JA21 party as well, yet another newcomer on the political scene struggling to gain visibility around issues such as migration and "climate scepticism"8. D66, in particular, seeks confrontation with the far right in order to exist in the dominant dual struggle — but, if we look more closely, its platform looks only tenuously more decent than the agenda of far-right parties. What is more, the far right itself seeks confrontation with Kaag by actively encouraging supporters to send her hateful and sexist messages9. However, D66’s main competitor on election days is the pro- and pan-European party Volt, which, although a newcomer as well, is not bound by a coalition agreement, and differs only little from D66 ideologically.
A real change can only come from a class-based agenda impervious to right-wing cultural politics and capable of setting the terms of political debate.
Although a new political storm had been anticipated in the aftermath of the recent election campaign, damage appears to be limited in the end. Changes in power relations were mainly observed within the left and right wings on an internal level, and the post-electoral balance of powers in the Senate will probably reinforce pre-existing trends10. After failing to win a majority of seats, the governing coalition must now either negotiate with the left (GroenLinks-PvdA) or deal with the right (BBB) — as these parties complement each other well, only minor political adjustments are expected. However, if you take all left-wing parties and BBB, you get a majority as well. Despite BBB being diametrically opposed to most left-wing parties on environmental and climate issues, there would be room for advancing social issues.
We can hardly expect any major policy change, at most marginal adjustments. To reach structural change in the Netherlands requires a new class-based democratic agenda that stays impervious to right-wing cultural policies while defining the terms of political debate. However, tackling a project of such magnitude would logically involve laying a new foundation and starting over.
This article has originally been published in French and in Dutch on the website of the Belgian review Lava.