Dhe pictures of the unrest against the curfew in the Netherlands went around the world at the beginning of this year. It was the worst unrest since 1980, when the coronation of Queen Beatrix was disrupted by squatters.
At the beginning of January, Prime Minister Mark Rutte (VVD) had offered to resign his third cabinet. This was the result of the child benefit affair – a case that had dragged on for more than a year. Tens of thousands have been falsely identified as fraudsters by the tax authorities when applying for child benefit. As a result, families got into debt and many lost their homes. People with a migration background were particularly often the victims, which raised suspicions of racial discrimination.
In view of the unrest that the Netherlands experienced in the Corona year, it is therefore all the more astonishing that Rutte, Prime Minister since 2010, could emerge again as the winner of the parliamentary elections next week. In the most recent surveys, his liberal VVD is well ahead with 36 to 40 out of a total of 150 seats. Geert Wilders’ right-wing populist PVV follows with 18 to 20 seats, almost half less. Then the Christian Democratic CDA with 16 to 18 seats.
Why does Rutte remain so popular, despite all the criticism of his politics and his corona approach? In fact, the prime minister has significantly turned the Netherlands inside out since 2010. Following the classic liberal concept, the government increasingly withdrew, and many areas were decentralized and transferred to the communities, including youth welfare and responsibility for the unemployed. The citizens had to show more independence and, in an emergency, speak to their relatives instead of the government, an idea for which the term “participatory society” was coined.
National debt was reduced to 52.9 percent before Covid-19 struck, and there was even a small budget surplus in 2019. The prime minister became known throughout Europe as one of the leaders of the “Thrifty Four”. Together with Austria, Denmark and Sweden, he warned the EU against a careless entry into joint debt in response to the first corona wave.
Nevertheless, under the leadership of Angela Merke and Emmanuel Macron, the EU agreed historic money transfers. But Rutte and his colleagues at least succeeded in getting a larger part than planned to be disbursed as loans instead of grants. After the British left and the German Chancellor, who still relied on thrift during the euro crisis, moved to the more spending-friendly Macron camp, Rutte has become a symbol of budgetary discipline in Europe.
In addition to this liberal policy, Rutte also proved to be a pragmatist. The political opponents criticize this as lack of direction and lack of ideas. Wilders recently even called Rutte a “gender neutral” politician. Rutte’s coalition partner, CDA boss Wopke Hoekstra, spoke of “directionless liberalism” under Rutte. The chairman of the social liberal ruling party D66, Sigrid Kaag, said she was rebelling against “ten years of VVD policy without plans”.
Rutte himself contributes to this image. The Dutch political debate is more practical and less ideological anyway. Rutte, however, took this even further when he quoted the German ex-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in 2017: “Anyone who has visions should see a doctor.”
Years earlier, Rutte called Visionen “the elephant that blocks your view” and said that as a liberal he was against great visions of the future. One advantage for Rutte was that he came to power in 2010 at a time when the consequences of the financial crisis were really being felt by citizens. This allowed him to focus on business and avoid high-flying intellectual debate.
Criticism of Rutte’s alleged lack of planning reappeared during the coronavirus outbreak. Initially, herd immunity was stated as a goal, but this plan was abandoned after criticism. There was a shortage of masks, testing capacity and beds in intensive care units, which resulted in some Dutch corona patients being treated in Germany.
By repeatedly reacting late to rising numbers of infections, nearly 16,000 people died of Covid-19 and 1.12 million were infected. The Netherlands was the penultimate EU country to start vaccinating and opted for a prioritization that ran counter to the recommendations of the Health Council. The government has often fended off criticism of the corona policy.
However, Rutte was able to speak fatherly to the country in difficult times. And he succeeded in making his Health Minister Hugo de Jonge (CDA) appear as the main culprit for the problems of the Corona policy, while he himself was largely spared the anger of the citizens. As a person, Rutte remains popular. During the entire Corona crisis, his party was higher in the polls than in previous years. Rutte is valued as a crisis manager, also by a striking number of people who do not vote for VVD.
The lesser evil
Rutte’s good poll numbers are also due to the weakness of his opponents. While there were still three large popular parties in the Netherlands at the beginning of this century – a Christian Democratic, a Social Democratic and a liberal – in 2021 only the VVD can claim this title for itself. Wilders is too controversial to become prime minister, the CDA has its fourth chairman in a year and a half, and the left is too small and divided to endanger Rutte.
The prime minister also benefits from the increasing fragmentation of the political landscape. At the moment the Dutch parliament has 16 parties, but on Wednesday’s ballot paper there are now more than twice as many with 37 parties – a record. Rutte is seen as the only politician who is able to bring together different, often divided parties for a coalition. Another reason why the Dutch want to give him confidence again, according to surveys.