On November 12, with Dutch parliamentary elections scheduled for 10 days later, more than 85,000 citizens gathered in Amsterdam. The March for Climate and Justice, the biggest ever of its kind, was organized by nine organizations united in the Climate Coalition, including Extinction Rebellion, Greenpeace, and the FNV trade union. Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg also participated.
After years of climate disasters, rising poverty, and an endemic housing crisis, the main message of the demonstrators was that it’s high time for a new political wind to blow through the Netherlands.
Dutch voters are wrestling with other issues before the elections. The last government fell over a bill to reduce the number of asylum seekers, so migration policy is a focus of public debate, as is the government’s military support for Israel and the green transition that’s supposed to reduce carbon emissions.
The main question now is: who will win the elections?
The Green Bogeyman
Frans Timmermans, the well-known leader of the Labor and Green Left alliance (GL/PvdA), attended a secondary school in Rome, where he studied French, history, and European law. A polyglot, he worked as a civil servant at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was second secretary at the embassy in Moscow, and served as a secretary to the High Commissioner for National Minorities.
As European Commissioner for Climate Action, Timmermans focused on making Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. The goal of the European Green Deal is the reduction of emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030 alongside promoting a circular economy and increased recycling.
Timmermans resigned from the European Commission in August. Many in the European Parliament acknowledge that the EU’s loss is Netherlands’ gain. As German MEP Michael Bloss commented:
With Timmermans’ move … the EU Commission loses its visionary mastermind of the Green Deal. He tirelessly fought against fossil fuels lobbyists and the opponents of European climate action. The Green Deal’s accomplishments are historic. It has achieved a lot for a greener and fairer future.
The GL/PvdA alliance that Timmermans heads up managed to form a common platform after two years of deliberations. Timmermans has great ambitions: to increase the minimum wage, raise taxes on big companies and high earners, invest in clean energy, form “citizen councils,” cap rents, and boost social housing. Dutch journalists are the first to admit that as EU Commissioner, Timmermans was able to push a number of previously unthinkable proposals across the finish line in less than four years.
But Timmermans’ candidacy always comes with a “but,” even among progressive commentators. Here, for instance, is a commentary from the liberal Dutch newspaper NRC:
He often reacts to criticism as if stung by a wasp, which does not always make it easy to work with him…. His considerable ego sometimes got in the way… but relations always remained civilized… At the same time, Timmermans often convinced with emotionally charged speeches, in a Brussels arena where eloquence is few and far between. With the help of his language skills, he was able to become a public figure in several EU countries. Not always positive: in Italy and Poland, among others, he has also become a green bogeyman at whom right-wing politicians could lash out in recent years.
‘This gentleman has done a lot of damage, we hope that the Dutch voters treat him as he deserves,’ Italian Minister of Infrastructure and Transport Matteo Salvini tweeted about his departure….
Also in The Hague, and also in his own party, he was already known as someone who can be touchy and likes to make himself important. But also, as an analytical thinker, smart and charming.
With his extensive international experience as a European Commissioner, Timmermans stands head and shoulders above his possible competitors. Nobody seriously doubts that he could move with great flexibility on the international scene. He is known as a brilliant politician but also something of an emotional troublemaker. Opposition to him is gathering on the right.
So, is Frans Timmermans too big for the Netherlands?
A Man with a Plan
Timmermans aspires to change the political reality of The Netherlands by challenging the public with bold declarations of what’s at stake. He also wants to involve people in the search for solutions. In an interview he tells this story:
I see the image of a wildly flowing river in front of me. We are on one bank and must go to the other side. You see the river flowing, you know the wolves are coming, running from the other side. And then somebody says: “Oh well, those wolves are still so far away.” Then you hear them louder and louder. “Yes, they’ll get close, but they might not find me.” Then they come even closer. “Maybe they’ll find me, but they’re not dangerous.” Until you get eaten by the wolves.
What is needed in order not to be eaten by the wolves is redistribution of knowledge, power, and income.
Only two parties are in serious competition with the progressive alliance that Timmermans leads. The candidate for the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), a conservative-liberal political party, is Dilan Yesilgöz, colleague of the out-going prime minister Mark Rutte. She is pro-market, intends to slash immigration, curb rents, boost private housebuilding, and protect big enterprises and rich people. She hasn’t ruled out a coalition with the far right and is seeking to become the country’s first female prime minister.
Another candidate with a shot at winning is Pieter Omtzigt from the New Social Contract party (NSC), which was formed only a few months ago by a rather eclectic group of people. Omtzigt himself has been coy about whether he wants to be prime minister and with what parties he would consider partnering. The program of NSC is similarly vague, gesturing in the direction of “good governance” and “doing politics differently.” Omtzigt would like to cut immigration, reform taxes, and improve financial security for low-income families, and has said he could form a coalition with the other two main parties but not the far right. Though Omtzigt is still searching for a political vision, which can indeed be a long journey, people seem to like him.
It is hard to predict voter turnout or preferences. Many citizens are afraid of increased migration due to war and climate change. Another hot topic is energy. Timmermans’ party is adamantly against the construction of new nuclear power plants because it would be “unnecessary” and “too expensive.” Most other parties, including those of the center-right, believe that the expansion of nuclear energy is necessary to make the energy transition possible.
In the upcoming elections, Dutch voters can choose from a range of different programs. They can put their trust in Dilan Yesilgöz, hoping that she can somehow improve the status quo with some tinkering and without any major changes. Or they can elect Pieter Omtzigt in the expectation that he will eventually find a political identity somewhere in the middle.
The third option is Frans Timmermans who wants to shake things up—and wake up voters. But to support him, voters must accept that his egotism and “missionary zeal” are human qualities that can be useful in the political arena where “emotionally charged speeches” can help push through policies. It would not be so bad to have a prime minister whom right-wing politicians call “a green bogeyman” but who also attracts the praise of mainstream politicians who consider him not only brilliant, but smart and charming as well.