Until two weeks ago, it looked as if the big winner on Sept. 12 would be another populist party, the radical-left and Eurosceptic Socialist Party. That prospect raised a lot of eyebrows, in the Netherlands and in the rest of Europe. Would a new government led by the radical-left walk away from the unpopular austerity measures agreed upon by European leaders to save the euro?
Now, some days before the elections, opinion polls show a different picture. If the predictions on this week’s voting behavior are correct, the race for top spot is no longer between the Liberal Party of Prime Minister Rutte and the Socialist Party. The Liberals are still doing okay with around 22 percent of the votes. But to the surprise of many, the Socialist Party has been overtaken by the center-left, pro-European Labor Party that is closing in on the Liberals with 20 percent. Although many voters are still undecided, it looks as if the new Dutch government will be headed either by the incumbent Rutte or by the new Social Democratic leader Diederik Samsom. The left-wing populists seem to have lost their momentum. What happened?
As in most European countries, but unlike Turkey, in the run-up to the elections Dutch party leaders discuss their plans and ideas in a series of highly publicized televised election debates. In the first one, two weeks ago, the young and talented Samsom, a former Greenpeace activist, did very well and the leader of the Socialist Party performed badly. Immediately after, the polls started changing with voters rewarding Samson for his performance during the debate and punishing his main competitor on the left. Since then, after several other debates along the same lines, we have been witnessing a remarkable comeback of the Social Democrats who were down to 10 percent only six months ago.
The scary thing about this spectacular development, according to some critics, is the huge influence of television debates and opinion polls. It looks as if many Dutch voters prefer debating skills to policy platforms. Polls seem to be able to produce their own reality, creating self-fulfilling prophesies in which the virtual winner is able to attract even more votes and the party that does not do well according to the pollsters is doomed because nobody wants to vote for a potential loser.
Critics definitively have a point there. But it would be too easy to blame the rise of the Social Democrats and the relapse of the Socialists only on the polling companies or the volatility among the electorate. Policies do play a role here as well.
In the election campaign the future of the EU and the euro, contrary to previous national elections, are key issues. Many voters don’t like the idea of Europe interfering with their pensions or health care and are reluctant to surrender more sovereignty to Brussels or spend more money on saving the Greek economy. At the same time, most Dutch instinctively know that radical steps like leaving the EU, as Mr. Wilders is proposing, or going back on promises made, as the Socialist Party suggested, are either totally unrealistic or will create enormous problems in Europe from which the Netherlands as a trading nation will suffer as well.
That is why anti-European populist rhetoric, be it from the right or the left, was quite popular some time ago. But on Sept. 12 it will be for real. Most people know that it does matter which kind of government will be formed after the elections. With only a few days to go, a stable number of voters on the right seem to prefer the critical but pragmatic approach of the Liberals to the provocations of Mr. Wilders. On the left, many realize that the Netherlands can’t afford populist experiments and support is growing for the realistic proposals of Mr. Samsom.
Whoever comes out as number one on Wednesday, the most likely scenario after the elections will be a cabinet of pro-European center parties. The populists on the right and the left will continue with their rambling anti-European statements that go down well with 25 percent of the electorate but have disqualified them with the rest.