Dutch farmers holding banners and flags in protest against government policies to limit nitrogen emissions in The Hague, Netherlands March 11, 2023. (Reuters/Piroschka van de Wouw file photo)
AMSTERDAM--A farmers’ protest party shook up the political landscape in the Netherlands on Wednesday, emerging as the big winner in provincial elections that determine the make-up of the Dutch Parliament’s First Chamber, the Senate.
The BoerBurgerBeweging (“Farmer-Citizen Movement”) (BBB) party rode a wave of protests against the government’s environmental policies and looked set to have won more Senate seats than Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s conservative VVD party.
First exit polls projected BBB won 15 of a total of 75 seats in the First Chamber, which has the power to block legislation agreed in the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament, with the VVD dropping from 12 to 10 seats.
The meteoric rise of BBB is a major blow for Rutte’s governing coalition, casting doubt over its aim to drastically cut nitrogen pollution on farms, the single issue upon which BBB was founded in 2019.
“Nobody can ignore us any longer,” BBB leader Caroline van der Plas told broadcaster Radio 1. “Voters have spoken out very clearly against this government’s policies.”
The Dutch government aims to cut nitrogen emissions in half by 2030, as relatively large numbers of livestock and heavy use of fertilizers have led to levels of nitrogen oxides in the soil and water that violate European Union regulations.
The nitrogen problem has crippled construction in the Netherlands as environmental groups have won a string of court cases ordering the government to limit the emissions and preserve nature, before new building permits can be granted.
The BBB says the problem has been exaggerated and that proposed solutions are unfairly balanced against farmers, leading to the closure of many farms and food production shortages.
Rutte’s government has not had a Senate majority since the previous provincial elections in 2019 and must negotiate deals with mostly left-wing opponents.
The two most cooperative parties, Labour PvdA and green-left GroenLinks, looked set to have held on to their seats, keeping their combined group at a par with BBB and possibly enough to maintain support for Rutte’s policies.
BBB won a single Second Chamber seat in 2021, but its popularity has surged on the back of growing distrust of the government and anger over issues such as immigration.
Rutte’s government, in its fourth consecutive term since 2010, has dropped to a 20 per cent approval rating, its lowest in a decade.
“The Netherlands has clearly shown that we’ve had enough of these policies,” Van der Plas told Dutch public broadcaster NOS. “It’s not just about nitrogen, it’s about citizens who are unseen and unheard, who aren’t being taken seriously, whose problems aren’t being tackled. The train in The Hague keeps rolling on. We’re going to stop the train.”
PvdA and GroenLinks, who are forming an alliance in the Senate, are also on course to win 15 seats. That would allow the coalition parties, who are projected to win 24 seats between them, to bypass the BBB, as the GroenLinks and PvdA alliance would supply enough votes for a majority.
The two parties have already said they will drive a hard bargain on climate change, with GroenLinks leader Jesse Klaver warning last week that he would block the cabinet’s green energy plans unless it accelerated the transition to renewable energy and abolished fossil fuel subsidies.
“Our ambition was to be the biggest faction in the upper house, the first left-wing party in 20 years, and that is still possible.”
The election results will put the cabinet on a collision course with the provincial governments, where the BBB will seek to build coalitions. The cabinet will need the consent of provincial governments to carry out its plan to buy out polluting farms and businesses that border nature conservation zones.
Exit polls in three provinces projected that the BBB would become the largest party in Noord-Holland, Noord-Brabant and Overijssel. In the eastern province of Overijssel it scored 31 per cent of the vote in the poll, which would be enough to win 17 of the 47 seats. No other party was projected to win more than four seats.
All four coalition partners are projected to lose seats in the Senate. The VVD is set to remain the largest of the coalition quartet, with 10 senators, while centre-democrat D66 and the ChristenUnion lose one each.
Rutte acknowledged that the poll did not project “the gains we wanted.” He congratulated Van der Plas on her party’s success, but added: “We are prepared to take responsibility in the provinces.”
The major losers in the elections are the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), whose traditionally loyal rural voters appear to have defected en masse to the BBB. The party is predicted to lose five of its nine seats in the First Chamber.
CDA leader Wopke Hoekstra described the projected outcome as an “extraordinarily bitter pill” and “a landslide that we haven’t seen for years.”
D66 leader Sigrid Kaag said the BBB had “managed to pull off a phenomenal result” and said the election had been a “festival of democracy”.
Turnout was the highest for provincial elections in 30 years at 61 per cent, with several polling stations reportedly running out of ballot papers.
Kaag said she was satisfied with her party’s performance, even though D66 is projected to lose one of its seven senate seats. “We stand for our ideals and we are committed to achieving our progressive agenda,” she said.
Two new parties are predicted to enter the Senate: the far-right JA21 party, who are set to win three seats, and pro-European group Volt, who could pick up two. Animal rights party PvdD also gained votes and could end up with five Senators.
Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV), Socialist Party (SP) and the ultra-orthodox SGP are all expected to make small losses.
The big winners of the last provincial elections, Thierry Baudet’s right-wing nationalist Forum for Democracy, was the biggest loser this time. The party’s share of the national vote slumped from 14 per cent to three per cent after four years dominated by infighting, with 11 of their 12 Senators defecting from the party. This time Forum is projected to take just two Senate seats. Baudet told cheering supporters his party was focused on a “long-term project.”