Dutch election promises tight race and new era in politics

Composite image of Dilan Yesilgöz (L) and Pieter Omtzigt
Dilan Yesilgöz (left) is tipped to be next prime minister while Pieter Omtzigt is heading a new party

There really is a sense of a new era beginning in Dutch politics in Wednesday's snap parliamentary election.

Not only is a brand new party among the front-runners, but the Netherlands could be about to welcome its first female prime minister too.

Mark Rutte's 13-year era ended when his fourth government collapsed, and this election has been fought on a cluster of domestic crises - from the high cost of living and a shortage of housing, to healthcare and migration.

What you need to know

It has been only two years since the last vote, but many of the leaders standing are new, including Dilan Yesilgöz, the woman tipped to lead the country and the new head of Mr Rutte's liberal-conservative VVD.

Of the 26 parties taking part, four are leading the race for the Dutch parliament. Apart from VVD, the other three feature a centrist party formed only three months ago by Pieter Omtzigt, 49, an anti-Islam populist, Geert Wilders, and a left-wing alliance under ex-EU commissioner Frans Timmermans.

What makes this election highly unpredictable is that as many as 70% of voters were yet to decide, according to pollsters this week. And for the first time in Dutch history it is possible no party will win 30 seats in the 150-seat parliament.

The threshold is so low that as many as 17 parties could enter parliament. The last coalition took nine months to form and lasted less than two years.

Who to watch out for

Dilan Yesilgöz: She is the daughter of Turkish refugees and was once dubbed a "pitbull in high heels" because of her no-nonsense politics,

She has run a slick campaign as new VVD leader. A promo video shared on social media shows her sparring with heavyweight kickboxing champion Rico Verhoeven.

As justice minister, she was seen as a tough negotiator and a strong communicator, and her gender has played no part in the election campaign. "I think she's avoiding these issues because the party has an over-representation of male voters in its electorate," says Sarah de Lange, professor of Political Pluralism at the University of Amsterdam.

People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) leader Dilan Yeşilgöz gives a speech during a VVD party conference as the party determines the election program for the House of Representatives during a congress, in Rotterdam on September 23, 2023
Dilan Yesilgöz was justice minister in the last Rutte government and is seen as more hardline than her predecessor

She appeals to voters under the slogan "On your side", promising renewal despite her party being in power for more than a decade, while still sticking to a liberal-conservative message that plays well with Dutch voters.

She came to the Netherlands as a seven-year-old Turkish-Kurdish refugee, but has adopted a hard line on immigration, vowing to introduce a two-tier asylum system, cancel permanent residence permits and take better control over all forms of migration.

Unlike her predecessor as head of the VVD, Ms Yesilgöz has not ruled out working with anti-immigration populist leader Geert Wilders, whose Freedom Party (PVV) is surging in the polls. But she stresses their "differences are enormous", citing his positions on Russia, Islam and "Nexit" - leaving the EU.

Pieter Omtzigt: An unlikely party leader, he is enjoying a wave of popularity in Dutch politics, having played a prominent role in 2019 in exposing a welfare scandal that left more than 20,000 families wrongly labelled as fraudsters and deprived of child benefit.

The scandal eventually brought down the third Rutte-led government in 2021. Months later Mr Omtzigt left the Christian Democrats and took several months off work for exhaustion.

His two big themes have become unlikely buzzwords in the campaign: improving socio-economic security - bestaanszekerheid - of Dutch households and changing the management culture of politics - bestuurscultuur.

He would make an unlikely prime minister, not least because he has made it clear it would be his "strong preference to stay in parliament" and lead his party there.

Under repeated pressure to say whether he would take the top job, he said he would be open to it if the cabinet was made up of "expert ministers".

It was a moment seized upon by his rivals. "Leading this country is an honour, not something you do because you have to," fired back Dilan Yesilgöz. If you don't want to be prime minister, fine, but just say so."

Pieter Omtzigt has made clear he will not go into government with populist leader Geert Wilders, because "as a party you can only form a government that sticks to classic fundamental rights".

Geert Wilders: His Freedom Party has long called for a ban on mosques, the Koran and Islamic schools, but Mr Wilders now says "there are obviously more important priorities" and he has spoken of putting some of his policies on "hold", indicating that he is keen to play a part in government.

He has performed well in almost daily leaders' debate on Dutch TV and he is third in the latest polls.

Frans Timmermans: The only left-wing candidate among the front-runners, he resigned as EU climate commissioner to lead the joint campaign by the Labour and GreenLeft parties.

The leading candidate of the Dutch Labour Party, Frans Timmermans attends The March for Climate and Justice to demand political change before the elections in Amsterdam
Frans Timmermans (R) has put climate change high on his campaign agenda

One poll put the Labour-Green leader as favourite for the role of prime minister among 18-34 year-olds. But the man who spearheaded the EU's green deal had to drop a party pledge to halve emissions of nitrogen pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and ammonia by 2030 after talking to young farmers.

He has promised to raise taxes on the wealthy: "It's not nice for millionaires, but it does make for a fairer Netherlands."

He has no obvious coalition partners among the other three front-runners, but has not ruled out working with Pieter Omtzigt or Dilan Yesilgöz.

Opinion poll
Opinion poll

Caroline van der Plas: In March, her right-wing populist BBB Farmer-Citizen Movement stormed to victory in provincial elections and became the biggest party in the Dutch upper house of parliament, the senate.

That momentum has fallen away but the BBB could feature in the next government. Their big focus is on fighting stricter climate measures and imposing a refugee quota but Ms van der Plas has ruled out being prime minister as she is scared of flying and would rather be talking to the public than doing politics in Brussels.

Caroline van der Plas looks on as she delivers a speech during a presentation of the candidate list of the BoerBurgerBeweging (BBB) party
BBB leader Caroline van der Plas will play some form of dominant role after the election because of her party's 16 members in the senate

What are the big issues?

Housing shortage: It has become so serious that the price of an average home has climbed above €400,000 (£350,000), because there about nine times as many home-hunters as flats or houses for sale.

Asja has spent seven months actively searching for a home for herself and two young children. "On a teacher's salary it's impossible to get an €800 [monthly] mortgage," she told the BBC.

State-subsidised social housing is in high demand and short supply, while private rents in major cities have rocketed. Students struggle to find accommodation and earlier this year more than 100,000 people signed a petition calling for more affordable housing.

Cost of living: Rising prices in the shops, energy and housing have left an estimated 830,000 people below the poverty line, but polls suggest a majority of Dutch people - even on middle incomes - say they're concerned about the future.

Even those who manage to find somewhere to live are facing record high energy bills. Trainee teacher Laurie Schram says she and her daughter depend on onesies and electric blankets to manage.

All the parties agree there is a crisis and Leonie de Jonge of the University of Groningen says the issue "has almost become depoliticised". Among 18-34 year olds, money worries are the decisive issue in determining who to vote for.

Migration: The previous government collapsed in July because of differences over asylum restrictions and almost two-thirds of Dutch people want a reduction in the number of claimants.

Part of the problem lies in a lack of accommodation. Three of the front-runners say they plan to tighten asylum rules and Pieter Omtzigt has directly linked migrant rights to the housing shortage.

Healthcare: Care costs are rising everywhere, and five million Dutch citizens describe themselves as unofficial carers.

The Dutch have been paying for health insurance since 2006, on average more than €141 a month for basic care - but 61% worry they won't be able afford it. That might be why many voters want healthcare nationalised again.

Climate change: Ten days before the election, tens of thousands of marchers in Amsterdam called for immediate action on the climate crisis. The Labour-Green alliance has put the issue high in its campaign, but Pieter Omtzigt has suggested that recent climate policy has focused on "an elite who can pay for it".