In the midst of the pandemic, Dutch politics became increasingly tumultuous. Its March parliamentary elections featured the highest number of parties on Dutch ballots since the 1940s. Additionally, public awareness of a myriad of socio-political issues and relatively high voter turnout perhaps reflect a political landscape. more diverse. Yet fallout from last year’s childcare allowance scandal and renewed talks about political transparency have hampered talks on lifelong learning.
In addition, more worrying trends such as the increased polarization of Dutch society in recent years – as has been the case in much of Europe – may have been accelerated by the pandemic. Dutch intelligence and counterterrorism agencies have warned that far-right extremism is on the rise and that the risk of a terrorist attack is “probable”. The pandemic has arguably exacerbated these problems and made certain social groups more vulnerable to radicalization. However, the majority of these changes are unlikely to be sustainable if the government is successful in finding stability and alleviating the socio-economic grievances that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. For many Dutch people, the crisis has exacerbated difficulties in finding stable employment and pushed up house prices in an already overheated housing market in one of the the fastest rate in Europe. Once coronavirus measures are relaxed and some broader societal dissatisfaction is partially alleviated, extremist groups will also find a reduced base of support in the Netherlands.
Dutch pandemic policy
The Netherlands have not well managed the pandemic. Its vaccination program was one of the last in Europe to start, and further measures taken to tackle the virus have been hesitant and panicked, strongly affecting the legitimacy of the policy. For example, against the advice of the WHO, the Dutch health authority maintained at the start of the crisis that face masks were unnecessary and gave people a false sense of security. Yet after a sharp rise in coronavirus cases at the end of 2020, the government backed down and made face masks obligatory by December in indoor public spaces, causing much criticism.
Although the first wave of COVID-19 temporarily decreases public skepticism, criticism and mistrust of the Dutch government have increase Last year. To add to this growing mistrust, the government resigned in January about the scandal of family allowances. From 2012, the Dutch tax administration unfairly accused thousands of parents of fraudulently claiming childcare allowances, resulting in home loss, unemployment and divorce. The government was seen as breaking its own rules and increased mistrust and uncertainty in government. The scandal sparked a wider discussion on political transparency and prejudice, which was postponed until the Dutch parliamentary elections in March 2021.
While the election results showed a victory for the right, mostly at the expense of the left, a new election did not alleviate public mistrust of politics. On the contrary, Dutch civil society discussions about transparency and an honest political culture were reignited when a minister was photographed with classified training materials as she rushed to her car. Close-ups of documents suggested that negotiations had surrounded a possible future ministerial post to “get rid” of a prominent and critical member of parliament, Pieter Omtzigt. The ensuing controversy derailed the training process, before it actually began. Prime Minister Mark Rutte had to bear witness in parliament why he initially denied speaking about Omtzigt, when the meeting minutes which were released later suggested otherwise.
In one of the most watched Parliamentary debates in recent history, Rutte barely survived a vote of no confidence. So far, Dutch political parties have made efforts to restore trust between themselves and the general public. The winning parties have still not been able to form a new government, despite the urgent problems facing the Netherlands. The lingering stalemate increases the likelihood that the division in Dutch society will become a long-term challenge, especially as the management of the pandemic will likely be held back by political instability.
Faced with the scandal, the Dutch public is widely divided on what to do in light of these controversies. Arguably, the instability seen in The Hague reflects a broader trend in Dutch society which became more pronounced during the pandemic. According to a government investigation on April 9, just over half supported all government measures against coronaviruses. Yet those in favor of the government’s introduction of “more” or “much more” measures represented 23%, and those in favor of dropping “some” or “all” of the restrictions represented 24%.
The visibility of online critics, skepticism and mistrust of coronavirus measures, and public health experts perhaps shows that a larger minority than ever before is likely to adopt extreme views, possibly with violent results.
Increased extremism in the Netherlands and Europe
In recent years, the European political landscape has turned more to the right. Populist, EU-skeptical and anti-immigration parties have garnered support across Europe in national elections. For example, the Spanish party VOX and the German Alternative for Germany (AfD) collected 14.8% and 12.6% votes respectively in their last legislative elections. In the Netherlands, the right-wing populist Forum for Democracy (FvD) gained significant support in the 2021 elections, being the only party openly skeptical of measures against the coronavirus. Some FvD politicians have been quoted misleading statistics on excess mortality in 2020, and interrogates the safety, necessity and efficacy of vaccines.
Besides the rise of right-wing politics, an increase in (violent) extremism has also been observed. As support for far-right plots in the Netherlands has grown more and more visible in the public space, the Dutch national news channel NOS was forced to remove their logo broadcast vans. Journalists and politicians have been verbally and physically harassed in the streets, accused of spreading “fake news” or receiving death threats. As protests of intimidation increased and the atmosphere in The Hague grew darker, the Speaker of the Dutch House of Representatives demand to file a complaint.
The chaotic riots against the evening curfew (the first since the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands during WWII) suggest that a larger group has been willing to listen to more extreme and conspiratorial views. However, those who participated are likely to have varied motivations. During protests and in online spaces, groups generally unhappy or skeptical of government measures against coronaviruses (due to loss of income and social activities) meet with those who have already felt left out for a longer time. In addition, as people spend more time at home and are affected by job losses due to the pandemic, it could lead them to radicalization in online spaces faster. Therefore, the Dutch Counterterrorism Unit warns Conspiracy thinking and online echo chambers can lead to polarization and hardened beliefs, although violent incidents related to the coronavirus have remained relatively limited so far. To illustrate, in a few isolated cases, COVID-19 test centers have been ignite, and in April, a man was arrested for planning an explosion in a vaccination center.
In the short term, building public confidence is essential to restore political stability in the Netherlands, but not at the expense of public health. Recently the government decided to reopen outdoor terraces and non-essential shops, against the advice of its infectious diseases committee. Combined with an expensive and disorganized rapid testing program, there is arguably not enough attention being paid to controlling the spread of the virus. Despite a constant decline in the number of COVID-19 cases and an increase in vaccination rates in May and June, the government’s attempts to keep interest groups happy show that Dutch coronavirus policies are just as messy as before. If buying public support with the restrictions early on fails and coronavirus cases increase, it is likely to backfire, causing more skepticism and discontent. If the training talks are successful, political stability will likely be positively affected. However, the government’s response to the coronavirus is likely to be impaired in terms of acceptance and legitimacy if the stalemate persists. There is also reason to believe that a violent incident is likely in the short term, if societal discontent and the spread of disinformation online are not addressed.
Yet in the long run, tackling polarization and extremism will depend on preventing the spread of disinformation online and mitigating (broader) socio-economic grievances.
Tech companies have taken responsibility in this regard. In the same way that Trump’s tweets have already been tagged as containing disinformation, several of FvD leader Thierry Baudet’s tweets on vaccines have been labeled as misleading, making Baudet the first Dutch politician to receive such a tag from Twitter. However, such a label will not ease the minds of those who already find it difficult to trust the government. In fact, it might even increase the mistrust of those who interpret it as censorship of the ideas they believe in. In the long run, the amount of visible discontent is expected to decrease, as coronavirus measures are lifted and economic woes are eased. Even so, a disgruntled group will likely remain post-pandemic if the government fails to address already existing socio-economic grievances, such as the ability to find affordable housing or stable employment. The long-term challenge for the Dutch government will be to represent strength and find balance in the midst of instability.