Dutch Elections "Those Who Dare to Reform, Lose"

Europe's reformers will be quick to learn the lesson of the Dutch elections last week: Moderate parties that embark on painful reforms face a backlash at the polls.


Former Maoist Jan Marijnissen (left), a critic of the Dutch government's reforms, saw his Socialist Party increase its representation in the parliament from 9 to 25 seats.
REUTERS

Former Maoist Jan Marijnissen (left), a critic of the Dutch government's reforms, saw his Socialist Party increase its representation in the parliament from 9 to 25 seats.

Three major European states currently find themselves in the unfortunate position of struggling to form a working government. Along with Austria and the Czech Republic, The Netherlands is now facing weeks if not months of horse-trading in order to form a government coalition, following its inconclusive election last week. The Dutch political system at the moment, one could be excused for saying, is a bit Amsterdamned. Dutch voters punished the established parties at the polls last Wednesday and now not even a grand coalition between Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's conservative Christian Democrats and the leftist Social Democratic Labor Party is feasible.

The massive erosion of the political center has been to the advantage of parties on the far right and far left. Anti-immigration populist Geert Wilders was one of the big winners. He is the political heir to the murdered Pim Fortyn, who demanded a ban on the building of new mosques and called into question the constitutional right to freedom of religion. On the other side of the political spectrum, the left-wing Socialist Party made huge gains, increasing its number of seats from nine to 25. Its charismatic leader, ex-Maoist Jan Marijnissen, had promised to give the social system a boost in The Netherlands.

Bas Jacobs, an economist at the University of Amsterdam, argues that those parties that dared to introduce reforms were punished by the electorate. Just like Austria and the Czech Republic, The Netherlands is not going through an economic downturn. In fact, its unemployment rate is now at a very low 3.9 percent. "And yet the election results reflect fear and insecurity in the face of globalization, and of technological and social change," he says. At the lower end of the highly flexible labor market people are constantly in fear of losing their jobs. "During the last recession the unemployment rate doubled in just two years," Jacobs says. "People don’t forget that." He argues that moderate parties across Europe will be concerned by the message from the Dutch election: "Those who dare to reform, lose power."

Like European society itself, the political landscape is gradually splintering, says Rene Cuperus, a political scientist and adviser to Germany's left-leaning Social Democrats. Populists, whose only policy is to criticize reforms, are becoming important players in European politics. The Netherlands had already implemented its most painful reforms, including the radical restructuring of its health system. For those countries, like Germany, that have yet to really undertake structural reforms, the critics in the wings will be encouraged by the Dutch electorate's rejection of the center parties. And it could make the reformers think again before embarking on anything more than a superficial tinkering with the system.

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