The PvdA and Groen Links have bet the future of the Dutch left on a joint candidate list and joint policy programme for the next Dutch general election in November. Nick Martin and André Krouwel examine what success for this gamble might look like.
The Dutch mainstream left has been in electoral freefall for more than two decades. The combined vote share (see Figure 1) of the two main parties of the Dutch centre-left – the PvdA (Labour Party) and Groen Links (Green Left) – fell from 36.3% in 1998 to just 10.9% in 2021.
In June this year, the membership of both parties overwhelmingly backed leadership proposals for a joint candidate list and party programme at the upcoming Dutch general election, which was called for November following the collapse of the previous centre-right coalition government. But how likely is this collaboration to make the Dutch mainstream left a serious contender for office?
Figure 1: Combined vote share for the PvdA and Groen Links (1998-2021)
Source: Compiled by the authors
The evidence from elections in western European elections over the last 40 years is far from promising. Since 1985, there have been just six comparable collaborations between established political parties at elections in 17 western European democracies. Of these, just two – between the Flemish Socialist Party (Sp.a) and Spirit in 2003, and between two other Flemish right-wing political parties, the CD&V and N-VA in 2007, led to increased electoral support.
In the case of the Flemish Socialist Party and Spirit, electoral gains were reversed in 2007, and the modest gain of 2.2 percentage points for CD&V/N-VA in 2007 led to the abandonment of the pact for the election in 2010. In all other cases – between the PSD and CDS-PP in Portugal in 2015, between Podemos and the United Left in Spain in 2016, and between Sumar, Podemos and Más País in Spain this year – the vote share of joint lists fell in comparison to that of the combined independent vote of the list partners. The collaboration between the PSD and CDS-PP was particularly disastrous, with the joint list performing 13.7 percentage points worse that the two parties combined at the previous election in 2011.
The reason why joint lists and party platforms have rarely been adopted thus seems pretty clear – they don’t work electorally. It is not difficult to see why given their precarious electoral position, that the PvdA and Groen Links have bet on collaboration. But can they buck the trend?
Standards of success
The two parties have certainly enjoyed a modest bump in the opinion polls since they confirmed their collaboration. In the polls conducted between the Dutch provincial elections in March this year and confirmation of the electoral agreement between PvdA and Groen Links in July, the two parties polled a combined 14.4%.
In the aggregated polls conducted since the membership vote on collaboration, this share has risen to an average of between 14 and 16% (between 22 and 26 seats in the 150 seat parliament) and in one poll the collaboration enjoyed a narrow plurality amongst Dutch voters. Polls also suggest that between 60-70% of previous PvdA and Groen Links voters will stay loyal to the two parties and that the joint list will attract around a quarter of those who voted for two liberal parties – D66 and Volt – at the last general election in 2021, parties whose support shows early signs of collapsing.
However, in the context of a very favourable field, where electoral support for the most important competitors (SP, D66 and CDA) has collapsed, a bump of 2-3 percent is not very impressive. Additionally, many competing parties have new, unknown and untested leaders, while the PvdA/GL leader Frans Timmermans is well-known and previously “won” the 2019 European elections, where he was the lead candidate of the Party of European Socialists. Moreover, as many left-wing voters traditionally decide in the last days of the election campaign to vote either for the PvdA or Groen Links, with the joint list many more voters on the left should have been locked in by now.
We suggest that there are two electoral thresholds that should be met for the new collaboration to be deemed an electoral success. First, the vote share of the combined list should at least be higher, 14.8%, than that achieved by the two parties competing separately at the general election in 2017 when the PvdA was part of the outgoing coalition government. Since the two parties were very nearly at this level of support prior to their agreement, this is not a very demanding test.
Second, the combined list should achieve a clear plurality of votes at the election, giving the parties a strong claim to be the prime ministerial party in a future coalition government. Such an outcome seems possible, but the Dutch political scene is highly volatile and therefore it must be regarded as a highly uncertain outcome.
Achieving these electoral markers of success will likely depend on two factors. First, whether the PvdA/Groen Links campaign succeeds in presenting the choice as between a government led by the centre-left rather than the centre-right. Second, on how support for the many other parties in the highly proportional Dutch system is distributed.
This is highly unpredictable for the upcoming election. All four parties that formed the most recent coalition government will go into the election with new leaders, and a new party, the New Social Contract (NSC), formed this August by Pieter Omtzigt – who defected from the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) – has soared into an early opinion poll lead. Polls suggest that as many as one in eight PvdA voters may vote for the NSC and that nearly one in ten previous Groen Links voters may switch to the Animal Rights Party (PvdD).
Success in Dutch elections is very much dependent on whether a political party can present voters with a possible prime-ministerial candidate and make the election into a “presidential race”. In 2012, the PvdA succeeded in doing just that by running PvdA-leader Diederik Samsom against Mark Rutte (VVD).
The PvdA and Groen Links are now betting heavily on the appeal of 62-year-old Timmermans to head the parties’ joint electoral list. Timmermans is likely to appeal to the ageing PvdA electorate – 48% of the parties’ voters are 65 years of age or older compared to just 24% of all Dutch voters – but it is questionable whether it will draw back the younger voters who have spread their vote amongst liberal and radical left parties in recent years.
The chances of a social democratic revival – or survival – are closely tied to their ability to present themselves as a viable government alternative. Voters on the left and in the political centre seem to still be susceptible to the promise of an economically fairer, less neo-liberal and more progressive alternative to the centre-right. The PvdA/Groen Links list promises Dutch voters a greener and more social future, but whether it can reverse the long-term decline of the Dutch mainstream left remains very much in doubt and will depend heavily on the election dynamics they can create.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: European Union