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Home » Focus, Netherlands

Why the Danish Construction Failed in the Dutch Context

Submitted by on 18 Jul 2012 – 16:27

Denmarks/Netherlands flagBy Gijs Schumacher, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Southern Denmark & VU University Amsterdam Christian Elmelund-Præstekær, Associate Professor, University of Southern Denmark, and Michael Baggesen Klitgaard, Associate Professor, University of Southern Denmark

In the Netherlands recently, the much-criticized anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, anti-EU Dutch populist, Geert Wilders, refused to accept radical reforms that were necessary to reduce the budget deficit. Consequently, the minority government that received parliamentary support from Geert Wilders’ Freedom party collapsed and a new election is to be held on September 12. Many of the strategic choices of the Freedom Party are inspired by its successful Danish sister party, the Danish People’s Party. Indeed, many observers have compared the two parties, but why did the “Danish” construction fail in the Dutch context?

The Danish People’s Party has been electorally successful because it links an anti-immigrant position with a popular pro-welfare position. This allows the party to pick up voters from both the traditional left and right. Moreover, the party is trusted by its potential coalition partners, the conservative and liberal parties, because it enforces an iron discipline within the party, and thereby prevents the anarchy of its predecessor, the Progress Party. Also, by supporting the minority right-wing government pragmatically, by for example accepting a number of retrenchment measures in core welfare programs, it received in return de facto agenda-setting power on the anti-immigration agenda. Hence, the combination of a successful electoral niche and a degree of pragmatism enabled the Danish People’s Party to be a key player in setting the Danish political agenda between 2001 and 2010.

Geert Wilders – seemingly – copied this strategy to the letter. In the 2010 elections he adopted a strongly pro-welfare position, broadening his appeal from bashing Islam to saving the welfare state. Moreover, by refusing to make the Freedom Party a real political party with members and delegation processes, Wilders at least temporarily averted the anarchy of the Pim Fortuyn party. After the 2010 elections he chose not to participate in the government. Instead he followed the Danish example by becoming a supporting party for the Rutte I minority government. This construction was a novelty in Dutch politics. However, by dropping his support for the government in crucial negotiations over the national budget Wilders did not copy the pragmatic economic policies of the Danish People’s Party. By leaving the problem of the budget deficit unsolved, voters may perceive Wilders as unreliable on economic issues, but more importantly, his potential coalition partners no longer trust him.

Hence, the Dutch experiment with ‘the Danish construction’ has miserably failed after only 18 months. In times of financial crisis Wilders economic policy may cost votes, and many of his proposed measures to curb immigration have now been rejected by the two right-wing governing parties and the incumbents seem reluctant to continue cooperation with Wilders. What explains the difference in success of the Danish People’s Party and the Dutch Freedom Party?

We argue that Wilders overplayed his hand because of a structural difference between the Danish and Dutch political systems. The Danish party system is a bloc-system, consisting of a socialist and a bourgeois bloc of parties. The political centre is very small and intra-bloc co-operation is rare. Also, before the rise of the Danish People’s Party the bourgeois parties never had a majority of the vote. Hence, the Danish liberals and conservatives had no other choice than to cherish their cooperation with the Danish People’s Party. The Dutch party system differs as it has a strong political centre. Traditionally, this has benefited the Christian Democrats (CDA) who could pick a coalition partner from the left or from the right. But even today, centrist parties like D66, GroenLinks and ChristenUnie can combine with the government parties and have a parliamentary majority. As a consequence, the government always had an outside option of co-operating with Wilders and used this option when necessary. Thus, Wilders never had the same strong negotiation position as the Danish People’s Party. As such, Wilders needs to be even more pragmatic than his Danish counterpart or face a long period in opposition.

We are not writing the obituary of Mr. Wilders. He has gambled on improving his position during the next elections. It seems unlikely this will happen, and even unlikelier that the Christian Democrats will again want to co-operate with him. But Dutch politics is gaining a reputation of being very unpredictable.