December 5, 2023 - 7:00am

There’s no getting away from it: the Dutch are sadists. At least they are in respect to their politicians. Following the recent general election, it has become apparent that the mainstream parties are caught in a trap of fiendish cruelty. No matter which way they wriggle, their situation becomes more desperate.

It all began with the shock win for Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party (PVV) late last month. The voters could have chosen a more moderate kind of populist, but instead they went with Wilders — who is arguably further to the Right than Marine Le Pen or Viktor Orbán.

He didn’t get a majority of seats, but if one takes into account the overall result it’s clear that public opinion has shifted in favour of a Right-of-centre government and a restrictive immigration policy. In fact, polling shows that popular support for the Freedom Party continues to grow.

Coming so soon after a general election, a mere opinion poll wouldn’t normally matter — but, as we’ll see, it is very relevant to the fraught negotiations over the composition of the next government. There are four options for the mainstream parties, all of them excruciating.

The first is to submit to the voters and form a coalition between the Freedom Party and the two biggest parties of the centre-Right — i.e. the Dutch Liberals (VVD) and a Christian Democrat offshoot called New Social Contract (NSC). The Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) could also be included. As it happens, that’s exactly what Wilders is suggesting.

However, as leader of by far the largest party in this potential coalition, he would be the logical choice for prime minister and neither the VVD or NSC would be keen on that. Nor would the wider EU establishment — the last thing they want is to normalise hard-Right power in Western Europe.

Option two would be to slam the door in Wilders’s face — but none of the mainstream parties want to receive the blame for frustrating the will of the people. Besides, as the NSC leader Pieter Omtzigt puts it: “the Netherlands must and will be governed.” So if the centre-Right won’t form a coalition with the populist Right, the only other choice is to shack up with the centre-Left. But that would mean one side or the other betraying their voters on the pivotal issue of immigration.

A third option is to hold fresh elections. However, with support for Wilders growing, that would be a high-risk strategy — and likely to produce a result that gives the populists even more power.

The final option is to play for time. The Dutch don’t exactly rush their coalition negotiations — on the last occasion they took 299 days to form a government. In theory, spinning things out provides time for Wilders to slip up. But he has every incentive to play it cool, presenting himself as the choice of the Dutch people while the elites attempt to overturn a democratic mandate for change. 

The Dutch situation therefore bears a passing resemblance to the Brexit logjam of 2016 to 2019 — when the UK’s Remain establishment tried to overturn the referendum result. As I recall, that worked out rather badly for them.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.