After Rutte, uncertainty reigns in the Netherlands

Dr Oliver Hartwich
25 July, 2023

With his surprising decision not just to resign but to step away from politics altogether, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has created a phase of uncertainty.

Rutte’s tenure, one of the longest among European heads of government, was previously characterised by adroit navigation of a political environment that can be as challenging as it is diverse.

For the past 13 years, it was Rutte who defined the political landscape of the Netherlands. And he had considerable standing within the EU.

Thus, Rutte’s departure leaves not just a power vacuum, but also a slew of questions about the future trajectory of Dutch politics and its implications for Europe at large. In particular, this will test how strong centrist politics are against a surge of right-wing populism.

Rutte had been in office since 2010, governing with different coalitions over the years, and he was able to survive conflicts and scandals along the way. Rutte certainly earned his ‘Mr Teflon’ nickname.

But after his current coalition fell apart over migration policy, the unexpected happened. No, I am not referring to Rutte’s resignation and calling of a snap election for November. These moves are what one might have expected from such a skilful and savvy political operator like him.

No, the real surprise was Rutte’s announcement on 7 July that he would be leaving Dutch politics altogether. No-one had foreseen that. It sent shockwaves through the political landscape.

From the outside, the Netherlands appears to be a stable and settled democracy – and that is not entirely wrong. But it is more complicated than that. Rutte’s VVD, the largest party at the last election, only gained a little less than 22 percent of the vote. There are fifteen parties in Parliament each representing fewer than 10 percent of voters. Governing the Netherlands is harder than one might think.

Rutte managed this feat, and his pragmatic approach enabled him to forge new coalitions out of the remnants of their predecessors. His sudden and unexpected departure leaves a void that will be challenging to fill.

The various parties, still reeling from Rutte’s departure, are only just beginning to regroup and reassess their strategies. The upcoming election, therefore, will be closely watched, not just in the Netherlands but across Europe.

Two figures have emerged as Rutte’s potential successors.

On the left, Frans Timmermans, a former EU Commissioner, has announced his intention to lead an alliance of Social Democrats and Greens.

In order to do so, Frans Timmermans has resigned from the EU Commission, where he was the Executive Vice-President and climate commissioner. He will now run for the leadership of a united Labour and Green Left Party in the Dutch election.

Timmermans is a Dutch and European political heavyweight. He previously served as his country’s foreign minister, including, for a few years, under Mark Rutte. But then he moved into EU politics, where he shaped Europe’s environmental policies for many years.

Timmermans brings a wealth of political experience to the table. His return to national politics could steer the Netherlands towards a more progressive and environmentally conscious political agenda.

Timmerman’s main rival on the right is likely to be Dilan Yesilgöz-Zegerius, the current Justice Minister from Rutte’s centre-right VVD party.

Yesilgöz-Zegerius would make an interesting Dutch Prime Minister, for many reasons. First, she would be the Netherlands’ first female Prime Minister.

Second, Yeşilgöz-Zegerius was a refugee who received asylum in the Netherlands. Born in Ankara, she emigrated to the Netherlands as a child with her family, who are of Turkish-Kurdish background and originally from Tunceli.

And third, Yesilgöz-Zegerius originally hails from a left-wing background. Her political career started in the Socialist Party. She then became active in the Labour Party until eventually finding her place in Mark Rutte’s VVD. That party has now nominated her for its leadership.

So, everything points to a contest between Timmermans and Yesilgöz-Zegerius for the position of Prime Minister. But, this being the Netherlands, there are many political uncertainties along the way.

The biggest one concerns the rise of right-wing populism, which poses a significant challenge to the Dutch political landscape.

Right-wing populism has a long history in the Netherlands. The Party for Freedom (PVV) is the oldest right-wing populist party in the Netherlands, having been founded by Geert Wilders in 2005 amidst a surge of anti-Islamic sentiment. Then there is the Forum for Democracy (FvD) under its leader Thierry Baudet. Founded in 2016, it could be described as climate sceptic and anti-European. Finally, the Farmer Citizen Movement (BBB), a new right-wing populist party that started in 2021, is a grassroots movement for the interests of farmers and rural communities.

The electoral chances of these right-wing, populist parties are hard to ascertain. According to the latest polls, the new left-wing alliance led by Timmermans would win 28 out of 150 seats, closely followed by Yesilgöz-Zegerius’ VVD with 25 seats. But the three right-wing populists combined are currently looking at 40 seats in total.

The Dutch political arena stands at a significant crossroads. Mark Rutte’s sudden departure has laid bare just how complicated – and perhaps unpredictable – Dutch politics really is.

Moreover, with the characters of Timmermans and Yesilgöz-Zegerius standing at the forefront, the election also has the potential to break several glass ceilings. Either we will see the Netherland’s first female Prime Minister, with a refugee background – or we will witness a significant shift towards environmental policies.

Only one thing is clear: the era of Rutte has ended. What is less clear is what comes next.

Will the Netherlands, known for its pragmatic and conciliatory politics, manage to maintain its stability, or will it tilt into a period of turbulence?

The Dutch elections, therefore, are more than just a national event. They represent a litmus test for the strength of centrist politics in Europe.

Read here

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates