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The Maastricht Diplomat

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It has only begun

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

By James Mackle |

A year ago, when I was still in The Diplomat, I wrote an article about there being two Maastrichts. Its cosmopolitan yet sheltered university youth, and its traditional, aggressively depressed suburbs. Yesterday I saw this divide come to electoral life. This isn’t the first time Maastricht have given the PVV a plurality.

The political analysis suggests we are heading towards a fiercly dull centre-right coalition, which will yet again end with the moderate heroes (D66) getting their seats rinsed in the next Tweede Kamer elections. The English media though has mainly focused on Geert Wilders, a man who seems designed to attract attention. This election Geertje did not seem to campaign at full speed. Whether it was his security detail or his A4-sheet sized manifesto holding him back, who knows. But the myriad of articles written over him shouldn’t distance ourselves form the 80% of the Dutch electorate who did not vote for the PVV.

Who won?

Winners in Lowland terms are not necessarily the largest parties (ask the Nieuw-Vlaams Alliantie in Flanders). Indeed, proportionate systems are not designed to hand one actor a clear majority. Rather, winners are the parties that gained seats, so D66, with their social liberal, pro-EU platform, and the CDA, with their standard Christian Democratic ideals, have managed to carve out big enough seat gains to be considered king makers. The largest party remains the conservative-liberal VVD, with Mark Rutte set to stay on .

Can GroenLinks really be seen as a winner? After Jessy mania, and a record seat collapse of the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) for allying with its natural enemy, GroenLinks find themselves with only 10 more seats to gain from. The SP, a hard left, eurocritical party only received 200 more votes than GL. It appears the Socialistische Partij has stopped trying under Emile Roemer, instead relying on the old Communist Party’s incredible feat of transforming East Groningen into a quasi-Maoist cult.

Wilders’ PVV made a net-seat gain. More on them later, though.

How did PvdA lose and the other parties win so much in Maastricht?

Stop reading this article, go outside for bike ride into districts like Malberg, Booschpoort or Maastricht Noord-Oost. These are the profile that used to vote PvdA. These were the districts where the workers would live to go to the factory right near the centre of Maastricht, like the Sphinx. Then, on the other side of the country, someone found gas, and the Dutch economy began to suffer what is conveniently known as the Dutch disease.

The depreciation on capital, caused by a high natural resource export economy, was too high to keep the factories open in Limburg. Liberal institutions that favour the services, resource acquirement and even agricultural subsidies over traditional industries are seen as the main culprits. None is bigger than the EU.

The result is the standard cocktail required for these “populist” parties to undermine what is meant to be the PvdA’s core. These depressed industrial zones also vote Front National in Northern France, AfD in ex-East Germany, and Lega Nord in Italy. The notable exception is in neighbouring Wallonia, perhaps because, as its Minister-President Paul Magnette says, the “centre-left hasn’t converted to neo-liberalism”. 

Nevertheless, one should remember that only 20-odd percent of Maastricht voted for the PVV. Their scores are much higher in the ex-coal mining districts of Parkstad Limburg. The real surprise is the VVD’s score holding up in the Limburgish capital.

The PvdA’s exceptional score last election was a result of the split Left, similar to what we have now (D66, GL, SP, PvdA, PvdD) all congregating around its charismatic leader Diederik Samsom to ensure the VVD did not win again after they allied with Wilders to form a majority. 

Why did the PvdA lose nationally?

“Het is allemaal de fout van Diederik” – Diederik Samsom

The PvdA’s exceptional score last election was a result of the split Left, similar to what we have now (D66, GL, SP, PvdA, PvdD) all congregating around its charismatic leader Diederik Samsom to ensure the VVD did not win again after they allied with Wilders to form a majority. 

When it became apparent the PvdA would ally with the VVD, to form what is known as a “Purple” government, many strategic voters felt let down. Then a host traditional PvdA voters also seemed to migrate towards GroenLinks or D66. This applies to students particularly in places like Amsterdam, Utrecht, Leiden and of course Maastricht. PvdA’s vote share with under-35s is now just 13%, which is criminal for a social democratic party.

Who else has lost?

I would argue the next big losers (after the entire Dutch Left) are the PVV, but not for the reasons towed by the international media. PVV are the second largest party and the largest party to have gained seats. But strategically, they have lost the monopoly of right-wing indignation on identity issues. Partly to the VVD’s turn towards identity issues, but also a small party, the Forum voor Democratie (Forum for Democracy). Wilders and the PVV can no longer afford to campaign on cruise control, but something tells me a man who can only see his wife once a week and travels with a security detail and bullet-proof vest (arguably his strongest arguments) looks tired and has had enough.

What should I look out for in government formation?

If it inevitably becomes the VVD-CDA-D66 centre-right, keep in mind that the latter two placed great emphasis on education. CDA wants the return of the student grant for bachelor’s, and D66 is generally seen as even more pro-education (gaining in nearly every student city).

The need for other parties to complete the 3-party government majority in parliament leaves the door open for single issue movements. Henk Kroll’s 50+ party may demand a pension policy to buy off the elderly vote. The ChristianUnion and/or SGP may demand a halt on any euthanasia and drugs legislation, or a more social tax reform for traditional families where the wife stays at home.  

Otherwise, despite surpluses, expect a fiscally conservative government. The real challenges it will face will be with international incidents, and personal relationships within the coalition. This PvdA-VVD term was the first government to fulfil its 5-year mandate since Kok II in the late-90s. Both parties put it down to personal relationships.  


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