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Netherlands waits after unexpected big win by Geert Wilders' PVV

The exit polls after the Dutch parliamentary elections hit like a bomb. Geert Wilders' populist Party for Freedom (PVV) recorded a huge seat gain and became the largest party by far. The Green Left/PvdA alliance led by Frans Timmermans also won substantially, but not enough to become the largest party. And newcomer New Social Contract (NSC) entered parliament with a whopping 20 seats. Numerically, a right-wing coalition consisting of PVV, VVD and NSC, supplemented by the BoerBurgerBeweging (FarmerCitizenMovement), is very obvious. But a lot of water will have to pass through the Rhine before Geert Wilders becomes prime minister in the Netherlands. Not for the first time, the Netherlands is facing a complicated and probably lengthy formation period. With the last Rutte cabinet, it took almost a year. What does the landslide mean for domestic and foreign relations?

Smaller parties marginalised by strategic battle for power

On Friday 1 December 2023, the Dutch Electoral Council will announce the official results of the elections. This will then confirm what the Netherlands has now had a week to get used to: a broad majority has emerged for right-wing parties. Frans Timmermans has been successful in marshalling left-wing votes, but the most important result will probably be that he leads a large group as 'leader of the opposition'. The other left-wing parties (D66, SP, Party for the Animals, Volt) fell victim to the strategic struggle for power and saw their voters switch en masse to Timmermans. Leaving them marginalized. And so the Netherlands has 20 political parties in a parliament of 150 seats. The Netherlands has long been used to coalition governments. Those were invariably 'centre-left' or 'centre-right'. Now a right-wing cabinet is possible.

Why Wilders won't just become prime minister

Over the past decades, Wilders' PVV has been kept out of government by the other parties for various reasons. Because the previous cabinet fell over the migration issue and this campaign was also mainly about migration, the liberal VVD indicated it no longer wanted to exclude the PVV. This gave Wilders the wind in his sails. Suddenly, a vote for his PVV was not a wasted vote and there was no longer a taboo on voting for the PVV either. The VVD still tried to turn the tide by stating a day before the elections that they would not enter a government with Wilders as prime minister. But to the shock and surprise of other parties, the Dutch overwhelmingly chose Wilders.

Meanwhile, explorations for a new government have started. The VVD has indicated it will not step into a Wilders government, but is willing to support such a government in parliament. This makes the formation of a stable right-wing cabinet very complicated. Pieter Omtzigt's NSC has also indicated that working with Wilders 'is not immediately obvious'. Only the small BoerBurgerBeweging (important because they form the largest group in the Senate) wants to join directly.

In the coming weeks, it will become clear whether a cabinet led by Wilders is at all feasible. If not, the game will enter another round and even Timmermans will become a relevant player again. But any outcome without Wilders and the PVV is also a slap in the face of the voters who made him the biggest with conviction.

What are the consequences if there is a right-wing cabinet with PVV?

With their support for Wilders, Pieter Omtzigt and his NSC and for the BoerBurgerBeweging, Dutch voters have indicated that they want a real change of direction. More focus on the Netherlands and (much) less on Europe. Wilders' election manifesto states that the Netherlands should go for a 'Nexit' and break with the EU. For NSC and BBB, Europe is an afterthought rather than a main issue. Their focus is in the Netherlands and for the VVD European cooperation does matter. The differences are wide, but any right-wing coalition will be critical of Europe.

All right-wing parties have made limiting the influx of migrants an important issue. A right-wing coalition will therefore have to take steps to limit the influx. Wilders has indicated he wants to bring back border controls. This is not at all compatible with free travel of goods and people within the EU. But there will be restrictive measures.

Climate policy will come under great pressure under a right-wing government. PVV, BBB and also NSC have won votes due to their opposition to the current climate policy. On this front too, a cabinet with PVV would come into conflict with Europe.

Thus, there are many other areas where these parties have indicated they want to prioritise domestic interests. Whether that is feasible will have to be seen.

And if there is no right-wing cabinet with Wilders?

If Wilders' PVV is again excluded from the government, the chances of a cabinet led by Frans Timmermans and his green-red party increase. Such a cabinet would have to include Omtzigt's NSC, and that party has great difficulty with that. It is even highly doubtful whether Timmermans could succeed in forming a majority in both the Lower House and the Senate. That in turn would create opportunities for Dilan Yeşilgöz, Rutte's successor as VVD-leader, to still lead a cabinet that might receive PVV support from parliament.

In sum, there is currently no one in the Netherlands who can predict with certainty which government we will have and approximately when it can be installed. As a result, the current caretaker government will remain in place, winged and with a Lower House where this coalition no longer has a majority at all. Important decisions will remain pending a new cabinet. Last week, some observers cried that Wilders' new cabinet could be in place before Christmas, but there is just as good a chance that there will still be no new cabinet before the European elections.

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