PIETER OMTZIGT is the most popular politician in the Netherlands, the EU’s fifth-biggest economy, in part because in 2021 the country’s leaders apparently tried to ditch him. Mr Omtzigt, an MP who then belonged to the Christian Democrats (CDA), had for years irritated the government (of which the CDA was a member) with relentless questioning over a huge benefits scandal in which tens of thousands of taxpayers were falsely charged with fraud. During coalition negotiations after the general election that year, an official was caught on camera with a sheet of notes bearing the phrase “Omtzigt: position elsewhere?” Many Dutch were outraged, reckoning that this meant that party bigwigs wanted to promote the troublesome gadfly to a harmless sinecure in Brussels.
Instead Mr Omtzigt stayed in parliament, quit the CDA and burnished his reputation as a maverick. Now, with an early general election due on November 22nd, he is the man to beat. In July, the prime minister, Mark Rutte, of the centre-right VVD party, stepped down over environmental and immigration scandals, and announced he would not run again. Mr Omtzigt quickly launched a centrist party, the New Social Contract (NSC), which shot to the top of opinion polls. It is currently at 17%, roughly tied with the VVD and a few points ahead of the combined Labour (PvdA) and GreenLeft (GL) parties, which are running together. In the Netherlands’ splintered field, with an astonishing 26 parties competing, the NSC is likely to be the kingmaker in any coalition.
The Dutch are in a rebellious mood; a Low Countries version of a wider disenchantment with established political parties visible across Europe. The cheerful Mr Rutte has led the country for 13 years. He owes his longevity to a remarkable knack for dodging blame for his administration’s scandals and mistakes, which have gradually eroded voters’ faith in government. In a survey in September by Ipsos, a pollster, just 33% of the public said they had confidence in politics, and a whopping 72% thought the country was heading in the wrong direction. Many described the government as dithering and bureaucratic, incapable of resolving insistent problems such as the benefits scandal, a housing shortage, rising numbers of migrants and a farmers’ revolt over restrictions on nitrogen emissions.
Most other European countries have a sizeable minimum threshold—usually of 5%—of votes for a party to win seats in parliament, but in the Netherlands anyone who draws the roughly 70,000 votes needed to win one of its 150 seats gets in. Hence new parties are constantly being born, and at moments of political frustration they can enjoy huge success. In the past the beneficiaries have often been hard-right populist outfits, such as Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) and later the Forum for Democracy (FvD). In provincial elections last March a more genial populist group, the four-year-old BoerBurgerBeweging (Farmer Citizens’ Movement, or BBB), took advantage of the nitrogen-limits controversy and won 20% of the national vote.
But the BBB has since dropped to 8% in the polls, as Mr Omtzigt’s NSC has stolen its thunder. The new party has signed up more than 7,000 members and dozens of candidates and staffers. Many of them are ex-Christian Democrats: as the CDA withers, the NSC is taking its place on the cultural right and economic left. At the NSC’s first congress on November 10th, supporters described Mr Omtzigt as the antithesis of the slick, tactical Mr Rutte. “Pieter Omtzigt is a man with a vision,” said Andre Nahr, a maths teacher whose friends were victimised by the benefits scandal.
Some wish that vision were clearer. The NSC’s main focus is on reforming government to re-establish trust; but many of its plans lack detail. The NSC leans right on immigration but left on health care, and Mr Omtzigt will not say whether he would prefer a right-leaning coalition with the VVD or a left-leaning one with Labour and GreenLeft. Indeed, he is not sure he wants to be prime minister, saying he might do so at the head of a technocratic cabinet of “experts” but prefers to remain as the party’s leader in parliament. He has not said what other NSC politician could serve as prime minister if the party wins.
For the left, the campaign has been frustrating. The Labour-GreenLeft list is headed by Frans Timmermans, who quit his position as the EU’s climate commissioner in order to run. The hope was that combining the two parties’ votes might be enough to place first and make him prime minister. But climate change is far down on the list of issues that Dutch voters say are important in this election.
Some of the issues voters do consider important, such as health care, social security and the cost of living, might normally benefit the left. But as politics has turned against Mr Rutte’s liberal economics, right-wing parties too have embraced welfare spending and state intervention. The campaign’s most ubiquitous buzzword is bestaanszekerheid, which translates more or less as “income security”. Mr Timmermans wants to raise the minimum wage, but so does nearly every other candidate. The other big party on the left, the liberal-progressive D66 party, has been hurt by joining Mr Rutte’s government; it is polling at just 5%. Smaller parties like Volt and the Party for the Animals are likely to get a few per cent each.
If the election is supposed to mark a break with Mr Rutte’s long rule, it is curious that the VVD is doing so well. The party’s new leader is Dilan Yesilgoz, the justice minister, who made a name for herself last year with a barn-burning speech on the dangers of wokeism. In economic debates, she turns discussions of bestaanzekerheid into pleas for lower taxes on the middle class. She has no trouble reconciling her identity as a Turkish-Kurdish immigrant with calls for restricting migration and asylum. Voters rate her the second-most plausible candidate for prime minister, after Mr Omtzigt.
In contrast to previous elections, she faces little challenge from the populist right. The FvD is now a fringe party of covid denialists; another hard-right group, JA21, is on the verge of collapse. Their voters seem to be returning to the PVV, which is striking a less harsh tone: Mr Wilders says he would like to join the next coalition and is willing to shelve his anti-Muslim policies for the moment. (No one has taken him up on the offer.)
Though the polls have been stable for weeks, the results are unpredictable. Dutch voters tend to make big shifts in the final week before an election, notes Simon Otjes, a political scientist at Leiden University. Many engage in strategic voting, giving their vote to any candidate within their ideological bloc who might place first. Yet for all the swirling hubbub of new parties, the most likely outcome looks likely to be another baggy centrist coalition government of the same sort that has frustrated Dutch voters for over a decade.■