The senate effect

By Anne de Vries and Hannah van der Wurff

The Dutch provincial elections of last Wednesday ignited a discussion on the political polarisation in the Netherlands. The Stand went out on the streets of Groningen to ask those who voted, for their thoughts.

In the elections on Wednesday, 56.1% of those 13 million people eligible, voted for the Provinciale Staten and waterschappen (provincial states and regional water authorities). Some view voting as their civic duty, some don’t. The other group is comprised of those who have no idea what voting on the provincial states and regional water authorities actually means.

The provincial states, of which there are 12 in the Netherlands, have seven core tasks to execute over their four year period. These core tasks range from urban planning, regional economy, transport and climate regulation, as well as electing the Dutch senate.

The elections for the regional water authorities, the regional institutions that decide over water management, were linked to the provincial elections in 2014 in the hope the voting percentage would increase.

The results

The outcome of the recent elections shocked left-wing Netherlands, as political newcomer Forum for Democracy (FvD) collected 14.4% of all votes nationally. This unexpected political surge led to a tie in senate seats between FvD and VVD, the neoliberal conservatives who have been heading the government since 2010.

“I wonder where this is going to take us,” says an elderly woman when stopped in front of the Groninger Museum. Holding back tears she says: “We had a very important period of peace after the war [WWII] and for me that feeling is fading.”

The crossing in front of the museum is crowded with trainloads of people passing into the centre from the central station. Even with all the noise, the woman’s message is clear. When asked what she wanted her vote to mean, she says she wants “peace, human connection and integration.”

FvD’s new prominence on the Dutch political stage didn’t go unchallenged. Some call their standpoints on the political system, race, climate change, the EU and immigration ‘controversial’, while others laud them for nestling between the conservative and globalist VVD and the radical anti-Islam PVV.

In Groningen, a miscalculation cost the green party PvdD one seat, after the FvD managed to manifest five provincial seats instead of the preliminary four, when the polls closed. While the greens GroenLinks dominate the municipal council in Groningen’s last election, the recent provincial elections granted them a mere one seat advantage over FvD.

The turnout

This year, just like the years before, the turnout for the provincial elections is low when compared to that of the national parliamentary elections. This isn’t unusual, and it’s rather a trend that doesn’t only go for the provincial elections but all elections, as the figure below shows. For the past 10 years the parliamentary elections have drawn out most voters.

What is especially interesting, as visualized below, is the difference between the national turnout, and those of the province and municipality of Groningen. While this follows the general trend, it overtakes national numbers on occasion.

“Turnout is an indicator for the importance the electorate attaches to certain levels of government,” says Eddy Habben Jansen, the director of the political educational institution, ProDemos. He predicted that the turnout for last Wednesday’s provincial elections would be relatively high compared to previous years because “there is quite a bit of focus on the cabinet majority in the senate,” which are in turn elected by the provinces.

When we consider the turnout for the Provincial Elections in Groningen this year and those for the past ten years, this does show. It’s a small increase, but it’s there.

Habben Jansen introduces the ‘senate effect’ as an indicator for sudden higher turnouts for provincial elections. Political tensions and a near cabinet majority show how these abstract elections can in turn “be transformed into national elections instead”.

On the Gedempte Zuiderdiep in Groningen, these sentiments were affirmed by a young man, who told The Stand that the electoral power of the provinces was the precise reason he went to vote to begin with. But, the elections “felt less important than the parliamentary elections”.

This senate effect, in combination with FvD’s growing supporters-base of dedicated voters frustrated with the current political climate, prompted the current senate construction.

“An excellent opposition party”

In front of Groningen’s synagogue on the Folkingestraat, The Stand speaks to a FvD supporter. He considers the election’s outcome “outstanding” and embraces the “countermovement against recent years of political foul play.”

Although he wouldn’t want to see Thierry Baudet, the highly controversial party leader of the FvD, behind the prime minister’s desk, he says “Forum is an excellent opposition party, as they call out the elephant in the room for what it is.”

Criticising the VVD’s vision for “managing the country as if it were a company” he calls out VVD’s stable voter-base for “structurally giving the rest of the Netherlands the finger.”

“That is why I think it’s good that someone like Baudet stands up. But still, I wonder if anything will change, because people like him aren’t wanted in the Netherlands.”