The populist Farmer Citizen Movement wins the Dutch elections

THE HAGUE – A new powerhouse of Dutch right-wing populism moved to the political center on Thursday after winning its first provincial election, a victory seen as a stark rebuke to Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s ruling four-party coalition.

With ballots counted from Wednesday’s vote, the Farmer Citizen Movement – known by its Dutch acronym BBB – was predicted to win 15 seats in the 75-seat upper house of the Dutch national parliament, level with left-wing-formed bloc Center Labour and Green parties. Provincial MPs elected in Wednesday’s vote will elect national senators at the end of May.

The losses suffered by members of Rutte’s coalition are weakening the government, but could also strengthen its resolve to suspend its four-year term, which ends in 2025, rather than face a snap general election. They will also exacerbate problems for Rutte in his attempts to drastically reduce pollution from the country’s agriculture, industry and transport sectors to protect endangered natural habitats.

Victories in provinces across the country of nearly 18 million people for a party whose leader Caroline van der Plas is its sole national lawmaker underscore a deep-rooted resentment of mainstream politics in the Netherlands that extends well beyond the party’s peasant power base spreads out. As the count was nearing completion, it was predicted that the BBB would become the largest party in all provinces except the central province of Utrecht.

“We are all normal people and all the people who voted for us are normal citizens,” said Van der Plas in a victory speech.

“Usually when people stop trusting the government, they stay at home,” she added. “Today they showed they don’t want to stay at home – they want their voices to be heard.”

The party traditionally representing many farmers and conservative rural voters, the Christian Democrats, which is one of the four coalition parties, was one of the big losers in Wednesday’s vote.

The midterm elections for the 12 Dutch provincial parliaments are often used by voters to vent their anger at incumbent governments, but success can be fleeting when fickle populist voters change their allegiance. Four years ago, the right-wing populist Forum for Democracy won the largest share of the vote, but was decimated on Wednesday.

Van der Plas describes her party as a “social right wing” whose original focus on the future of farmers and rural communities has now been expanded to appeal to a much broader constituency. The political scientist Andre Krouwel from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam calls it “popular nationalism”.

Rutte, who came to power in 2010 and is the Netherlands’ longest-serving leader, is a political survivor adept at forging alliances to carry his policies through the Netherlands’ fragmented political landscape.

But Wednesday’s result will make life even tougher in the Senate – where his coalition already lacked a majority. If, as predicted, the BBB and the Labor/Green combination both finish with 15 seats, Rutte faces a choice of working with a left-leaning bloc that wants more ambition in environmental policy, or with the BBB, which wants measures to reduce it reduce nitrate pollution.

“The Senate has a choice – left or right,” said Green Party leader Jesse Klaver.

The government coalition wants to reduce emissions of pollutants, especially nitrogen oxides and ammonia, by 50 percent nationwide by 2030. Ministers call the proposal an “inevitable transition” aimed at improving air, land and water quality.

The plans have sparked mass protests from farmers in recent years, including blocking supermarket distribution centers with tractors and flaring hay bales along highways. On farms across the country, the Dutch flag is hung upside down as a sign of protest.

The BBB party’s popularity skyrocketed amid the protests. Founded in 2019, it won 1% of the vote in the 2021 national election, with Van der Plas, a former agricultural journalist, becoming a national legislator and gaining popularity with her down-to-earth image. After her election in 2021, she was driven by tractor to the Dutch Parliament in The Hague.

Van der Plas told Dutch broadcaster NOS on Thursday that the vote is about more than farm pollution.

“Nitrate is a symbol of discontent in the country,” she said, adding that many of her constituents feel “unheard and unseen” by politicians in The Hague.

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission. The populist Farmer Citizen Movement wins the Dutch elections

Sarah Y. Kim

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