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Netherlands - General Elections

General elections in the Netherlands 22nd January 2003

General elections in the Netherlands 22nd January 2003

22/01/2003 - Analysis

With the resignation of two governments within the space of six months, one politician assassinated, a populist extreme rightwing movement that became the second political group in the country before collapsing like a soufflé - the year 2002 was a turbulent one for the Netherlands. The government that was formed on 22nd July by Jan Peter Balkenende, was only to last 87 days before internal tension, essentially due to the conflict between the different members of Pim Fortuyn's List, became insurmountable, with the Prime Minister being forced to present his government's resignation to Queen Beatrix and to call early general elections.

A Brief Overview of the Events in 2002

The general elections on 15th May 2002 that provided the Christian Democrats with a landslide victory and questioned the traditional system of political parties shook the Netherlands to the ground in political terms.

On the one hand the populist extreme rightwing movement, the Pim Fortuyn List, that was created just a few months previous to the vote and whose charismatic leader and only true political personality was assassinated just one week before the election, made a strong entry into Parliament by winning 26 seats; until then it had not had any representative in the Lower Chamber.

On the other hand the "violet" coalition (social democrat) that had led the country for eight years suffered a heavy defeat; in all the three parties that formed the coalition lost 44 of the 97 seats that it had held. The defeat was particularly heavy for the Labour Party (PvdA) that alone lost 22 seats and achieved its worst result since 1945. The Social Democrat Party that had been the first political movement in the Netherlands for over eight years was now in third position alongside the Popular Party for Liberty and Democracy (VVD). The Democrat 66 Party, the other coalition member in power, was also obliterated, losing half of its seats.

Jan Peter Balkenende, 46 years old, had only been an MP for one term of office and had been elected head of the Christian Democrat Party (CDA) just a few months previously, therefore inherited the difficult task of leading a government coalition that united his own movement, the Pim Fortuyn List (LPF) and, in spite of the results and a clear regression,, the Popular Party for Liberty and Democracy (VVD). The populist movement was awarded four ministerial portfolio (Immigration-Integration, Economy, Health and Transport) and five State secretariats of which Finance, Emancipation and the Family. For the very first time policies of political asylum, immigration and integration were grouped together within the same ministry, an idea that was dear to Pim Fortuyn. Hans Nawijn, a militant for the Christian Democrat Party since the 1980's, who became a member of the Pim Fortuyn List one week before his ministerial appointment, inherited the management of this super ministry. For three months he succeeded, with his deadly declarations against asylum seekers and people of foreign origin, in monopolising the political debate without managing however to deliver a single draft law on the immigration policy.

The new government's first problem came from the Secretary of State for Emancipation and the Family. Philomena Bijlhout, who revealed that she had lied about her past within the militia of the Surinam dictator Desi Bouterse was forced to resign just a few hours after her appointment. Then as the weeks went by the Dutch, who had been used to decades of stability and political consensus, discovered with stupefaction the violence and incessant quarrels, ranging from an exchange of insults to physical blows, between the members of the Pim Fortuyn List. In September the conflict between Eduard Bomhoff, the Health Minister and Herman Heinsbroek, the Economy Minister both members of the populist movement and who were fighting over the party's leadership, reached its apotheosis and led to the resignation of Jan Peter Balkenende's government on 16th October, hence becoming the briefest of Dutch governments since 1945.

The Fall of Jan Peter Balkenende's Government

The Prime Minister attributed his government's fall to the disagreements and in-fighting within the Pim Fortuyn List. "To my great regret a confidence crisis has set in. I have done everything on the sidelines to find a solution to the conflict but I have not succeeded" he declared. However a group of political analysts personally blamed the leader of the Christian Democrat Party (CDA) along with his inexperience, accusing him of not having known how to estimate the size of the crisis and not having succeeded in organising his majority.

As far as the Pim Fortuyn List is concerned in the wake of the Austrian Liberal Party did not succeed in achieving the impossible, i.e. to continue criticising the political machine whilst becoming a true party of government able to make constructive suggestions. The assassinated leader himself admitted in the preceding electoral campaign that none of his fellow candidates, in his opinion, was able to assume a ministerial function. The populist movement was unable to suggest any government reforms except for the election of mayors by direct universal suffrage (the first communal magistrates were appointed by the government), a priority that comprised one of Pim Fortuyn's main aims in his fight for more direct democracy in the Netherlands. What most of the political analysts feared in fact happened: the Pim Fortuyn List demonstrated its inability to transform itself into a party of government and its internal dissension led to endangering the cohesion of the country's ruling coalition.

The Pim Fortuyn List that was devoid of any militant tradition, geographic roots, experienced executives and that was shaken by in-fighting and that also boasted a new era in Dutch politics, is totally adrift. Mat Herben, the former spokesperson for the Defence Ministry and for the party who took over from the assassinated leader before being thrown over on 8th August by Harry Wijnschenk, a book publisher with no previous political experience, took back his position as leader mid October 2002.

What is at stake in the new elections?

The hunt for the former voters of the Pim Fortuyn List (one and half million Dutch, i.e. 1 in 6 on 15th May) is open. The early elections are not without problem for some political movements such as the Labour Party (PvdA) who suffered too great a defeat during the last election in order to plan for a rapid return to power. In addition to this the Social Democrat movement undertook a major reform effort that is far from being finished. The PvdA still has not found a leader and is led in Parliament by an interim group leader.

The latest opinion polls have forecast the almost total disappearance of the populist movement during the next election. This information is however far from being as reassuring as it seems. We must not forget that the Dutch vote on 15th May, apart from being a major approval of the theories put forward by Pim Fortuyn, was also an expression of discontent with the traditional parties, who were believed to be favouring management to the detriment of politics and also to be incapable of responding, in the publics' opinion, to the country's real problems. We should also not forget the populist's movement's failure owes more to its internal divisions than to a victorious strategy put forward by its partners in coalition.

Just two weeks from the general election several parameters should be taken into account. Firstly in spite of the economic prosperity in which they live the Dutch express a disquiet in terms of the future in all of the opinion polls. Violence and criminality comprise the main subjects of worry for half of the population, health and security for a third whilst the economy and employment are only quoted as being a preoccupation by 5% of those interviewed. These are figures for all politicians to mull over. Secondly the increasing volatility of the electorate and the regression of any attachment to a political movement by family or personal tradition makes it even more difficult to foresee the result of the next national election.

According to all the opinion polls the Christian Democrat Party (CDA) should strengthen its position as the primary movement in the country on 22nd January. It is credited with 50 seats in Parliament (against 43 at present). The Popular Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the Labour Party (PvdA) come out equal second in the polls, each movement winning 28 seats (against 24 at present for the VVD and 23 for the PvdA). Pim Fortuyn List is collapsing and should only find 5 of its former MP's elected. However, 40% of the electorate remains undecided as to how they will vote. In addition to this a number of analysts predict a high abstention rate for these early general elections.

The populist leader really triggered of an explosion of the consensual political system that had been the pride of the Netherlands for decades. "Pim Fortuyn would not have reformed the Netherlands but his death will have made it a totally different country." wrote a Dutch daily just a few months ago. Although the populist leaders' successors have proven themselves incapable of being true politicians the disquiet revealed by Pim Fortuyn and the demands he gave voice to are from having disappeared. A great majority of the Dutch are not only expecting their problems not to be ignored but also that they are answered.

Reminder of the results of the general elections of 15th May 2002:

Participation : 78,8%

Source Embassy for the Netherlands in Paris
Publishing Director: Pascale JOANNIN
The authors
Corinne Deloy
Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).
Fondation Robert Schuman
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