On the 18th of March the people in the Netherlands will head to the polls to bring out their votes. Only two months after the cabinet Rutte III has collapsed over a childcare allowance scandal. Furthermore, in recent weeks, many protests have created unrest in the Netherlands over the curfew’s imposition. Despite this, the polls have stabilized over the past few months. The People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) led by the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, still enjoys the highest support. The polls even indicate that the VVD is expected to gain more seats than in the elections of 2017.
If the VVD becomes the largest party with the elections, Rutte will be the first in line to become prime minister. This will then be his fourth term in office, making him one of the longest-serving Dutch prime ministers since World War II. Rutte is known for his down-to-earth personality and pragmatic leadership skills, which have proven successful assets in maintaining support among the Dutch public during the current COVID-19 crisis. The support for Rutte and his cabinet has grown significantly since the beginning of the pandemic. Over the past few months, the polls indicated that the VVD is expected to win between 41 and 45 seats. In years, the VVD did not have such a high ranking. However, the support for Rutte and his approach to the coronavirus have diminished in the past weeks. According to the newest poll, the VVD would only win 37 seats, which is at least four seats less than a few weeks ago.
Figure 1: Polls of the 2021 Dutch national elections.
Furthermore, the Dutch public’s support to the COVID-19 approach has been the lowest since the start of the pandemic. The Dutch National Institute for Public Health and Environment research indicates that only 48 percent of the respondents agree that the cabinet is doing a great job at balancing out the different societal interests in the approach to corona. In comparison, this was 63 percent in November.
With Rutte’s growing popularity throughout the crisis, the VVD has taken the risk of focusing their party’s campaign fully on Rutte and his leadership
Since March 2020, Rutte has taken on the central role in leading the country through the pandemic. With Rutte’s growing popularity throughout the crisis, the VVD has taken the risk of focusing their party’s campaign fully on Rutte and his leadership. Although criticism has already arisen for letting his two roles as leader during the pandemic and party leader of his campaign merge, this approach can also have several risks. The campaign of the VVD focuses on COVID-19 and leadership, while the other parties’ campaigns have chosen to focus on how the Netherlands will look after the crisis. When the campaign becomes more political, the apolitical presentation of Rutte can become more vulnerable. The VVD clearly chose not to use focus on their regular party issues such as public finances, employment opportunity, security and the economy. Therefore, other parties will have a head start if substantive topics such as climate change or the healthcare sector will be brought to attention.
One other weakness of Rutte, which can be crucial in determining the success of the VVD during the elections, is the entrepreneurial base. During COVID-19, these entrepreneurs have felt neglected as their restaurants and stores had to be closed since the lockdown in December. In the last few weeks before the elections, Rutte should not lose these voters and although he has a great position in the polls, these entrepreneurs are his vulnerability.
There have been many debates about the vaccine strategy in the Netherlands as the vaccination program has started later than in most other European countries
Furthermore, Rutte’s corona approach has been experiencing more criticism in the past few months. There have been many debates about the vaccine strategy in the Netherlands as the vaccination program has started later than in most other European countries. Moreover, the country has been in strict lockdown since 15th of December, which has led to debates about potential easing of the measures over the past few weeks. According to the research of I&O, the support for the corona measures among the Dutch have diminished from 75 percent in January to 62 percent now. This is the lowest percentage of support that has been measured since the start of the pandemic. In particular, the support for the economic measures has lowered. As the VVD has kept being quiet about the current economic measures, this can have further repercussions for Rutte and his party in the elections.
These past few weeks, a mix of unrest, crisis, fear, and insecurity has been growing among the public, forming a foundation for movements of protests. With social media, protests can now easily be organized on a large scale, quickly changing the atmosphere. The curfews’ announcement in January has already led to many protests that formed an obstacle for the cabinet. During the upcoming few weeks, the new corona measures will become clear and the role of these curfews at night. These few weeks will thus be crucial in determining Rutte’s support during the elections. One week before the elections, Rutte will still have the chance to give a speech about the country’s measures, which might give him and his party a boost for the polls. Most parties in the polls are balancing around fifteen seats, with the PVV a bit above of this. Thus, the VVD still has a big lead, and even the often-crucial debates between the party leaders on television have this year proven not to move the voters. The polls have thus stabilized, and despite the insecurities that the upcoming few weeks may hold, Rutte is still heading for victory.
The Editor: Julia Blanken
Julia Blanken is an MA student in International Political Economy at King’s College London. She holds a BA with Honours in Political Science from Leiden University. Her interests are mainly in development and security issues, with a specific focus on the European Union and Africa. Next to her studies, Julia had been a part of several think tanks and voluntary organizations. She is currently active as the Vice-President for Partnerships at the European Student Think Tank