So I don’t profess to be an expert in Dutch politics at all, but I’ve spoken to colleagues, friends and read up a lot as best as I can between English articles and Google translate. I think I have a basic understanding now, and it's definitely helped me to prepare for tomorrow.
From my point of view as a first time voter, three major differences between federal elections in the Netherlands and Canada are immediately apparent. First, there are a lot more parties to choose from -- I’m not sure exactly how many there are, but somewhere between 28 and 31. Second, it’s a multi-party system, meaning that no one party is likely to secure the majority of votes. That means that several parties must cooperate to form a coalition government. And third, elections are decided by what I've seen described as "extreme" proportional representation. Whatever that means, it's new to me.
Legislative power is divided between two houses in the Staten-Generaal: the Tweede Kamer (or House of Representatives), and the Eerste Kamer (Senate). The Tweede Kamer has 150 members elected for 4-year terms by proportional representation. You vote directly for the candidate.
Every party uses a list of candidates for each of the 20 electoral districts, but the candidate lists in each district can be partly or completely the same. Without going into detail about the process - once the votes are tallied, the number of seats are assigned to each party, and then candidates are assigned to the seats.
Election and eligibility to vote
Every Dutch citizen who has reached the age of 18 is eligible to vote or to stand for election as a member of the Tweede Kamer.
Two weeks before an election all voters receive a card, and this card must be presented at the polling station with official identification. Voter registration is not required if you live in the Netherlands because you must already register with your municipality when you move.
The polls are open from 7:30am to 9:00pm, and voters cast paper ballets due to security concerns with voting machines.
With so many parties where do you even begin? Thankfully, there are resources to help you sort through all of them. At tweedekamer2017.stemwijzer.nl you can fill out a survey that helps you sort out what party matches your political identity. You also receive the candidate list in the mail, which is a little intimidating if you don't know what you're doing:
Here is a short overview of some of the main parties and major characters:
VVD (Liberal Party) --- current Prime Minister Mark Rutte
The Liberal party is pro-business and is currently governing, holding a majority in the Dutch government since 2012.
PvdA (Labour Party) --- current Deputy Prime Minister Lodewijk Asscher
Pro-European but has faced criticism of its austerity measures.
PVV (Party of Freedom) --- Geert Wilders
A populist running on an anti-islamic, anti-EU platform, Wilders is the Netherlands’ Trump. His campaign slogan is “make the Netherlands ours again.”
SP (hard left Socialist Party) --- Emile Roemer
In favour of welfare spending and corporate taxes, and focused on policies including affordable healthcare.
CDA (Christian Democratic Appeal) --- Sybrand van Haersma Buma
Pro-business conservatives that have called for significant reform of the EU.
Democraten 66 --- Alexander Pechtold
Urban, progressive and in favour of Europe and multiculturalism.
GROENLINKS (Green Left Party) --- Jesse Klaver, aka “the Jessiah”
Jesse Klaver is the Netherlands’ Justin Trudeau. He is young, 30 years old, optimistic, and of Moroccan, Dutch and Indonesian background. At a recent event, he called their campaign a “movement of empathy” which is also focused on economic equality and climate protection.
And that’s only the beginning - I skipped over the Pirate Party, which sounds like fun too.
Although voter turnout seems quite high here -- in the last federal election, 75% -- no one seems to be talking about it in conversation at work, to me anyway. There aren’t signs littered everywhere, and I’ve only seen people handing out pamphlets outside the train station this week. The only evidence over the past weeks of the upcoming election has been scattered comments about Wilders, Wilders, Wilders. Like Trump, he is hard to ignore.
Generally the economy is recovering from the global financial crisis while unemployment is at its lowest in five years. Healthcare is, of course, a significant issue -- but I think that will never change no matter where in the world you are. Despite high taxes, which would surely be a sticky point with Canadians, I haven’t seen anyone complaining. Also different to the usual fare in Canada are the topics of Dutch culture and the EU, and the country’s relation to the rest of Europe. Seizing on these issues and stretching them as far as possible is our dear Wilders.
It seems to be the case that people in the south of the country or smaller villages are more likely to vote Wilders. In the absence of major discontent -- things are generally good -- immigration seems to be the polarizing issue of the election. I really get the sense that these voters are not unhappy with immigration per say. Not many people are saying they want to ban “legitimate” refugees despite Wilders’ rhetoric. But some are afraid of change, suspicious and not particularly persuaded by facts or reason.
Quite a few people think Wilders will win, but certainly not become Prime Minister (still not sure how exactly that works. They mean that he could get the most seats, but still not a majority, and with no other parties willing to form a coalition, he cannot lead. Who does become Prime Minister then, I don’t know).
My final thoughts
It seems grim when everyone says that Wilders can, probably will, win the vote. But I still don’t know what that means if he can’t form a coalition. I guess everyone else will have to form a coalition that eclipses him, and the new Prime Minister will come from that coalition. It seems like it’s not all or nothing here, and I suppose that's reassuring. The point is, no one seems to be freaking out, so neither will I.
I feel heartened by the fact that there are so many choices. And also by the fact that it seems like my vote really will matter (if you come from Alberta, you know what I mean). Proportional representation!
I feel a few butterflies, but I’m confident in my choice. Tomorrow I will head to the market square and into the picturesque old Haarlem City Hall to vote in my very first Dutch election. Another perk of living in the city center. Wish me luck that everything goes according to plan!