Dutch lessons for Italian politics: three indications from election results in the Netherlands.

The 1027 miles that separate Amsterdam from Rome give a clear idea of the difference between Italy and the Netherlands. Apart from the weather (generally nice and warm in Italy, quite regrettable in the Netherlands if one doesn’t like rain) and the food (outstanding in Italy and, again, quite regrettable in the Netherlands if one doesn’t like potatoes and cheese), there is a gulf between the political class of the Netherlands, more respectable and devoted to dialogue, and the Italian one, which is old and rather corrupted. These differences notwithstanding, the results of Dutch general elections of last 12th September entail three main indications that are applicable to the Italian case, and might be useful for the political actors with the general elections of 2013 in mind. Firstly, a lesson for the Lega Nord and Beppe Grillo’s “5-stars Movement”: Euroscepticism doesn’t pay. Secondly, a lesson for the Democratic Party: a leadership change may be profitable. Thirdly, a strategic lesson for mainstream and smaller party: voters may opt for a strategic vote rather than an ideological one.

Lesson number one: Euroscepticism doesn’t pay. From the Netherlands to Italy, a bipartisan warning.

Observers easily agree on the analysis that Dutch voters have ultimately rejects Euroscepticism. Although it had already been predicted by most of the pollsters, the collapse of Geert Wilder’s right-wing populist party PVV (Party for Freedom) from 24 to 13 seats in the 150-seat Dutch chamber is the sharpest verdict of the elections. Mr. Wilders has focused PVV’s election campaign on the hostility against the EU. With hindsight, this strategy didn’t pay: right-wing, populist parties all over Europe should be aware of it. In particular, the Italian Lega Nord, which has a lot in common with the PVV, should learn a lesson. Although the results of the Eurobarometer survey show a rise of Euroscepticism among EU citizens, there exist pitfalls in pursuing a radical election campaign against the European Union. According to Hans Vollaard, assistant professor at the Institute of Political Science of the Leiden University, Dutch citizens are more “Euro-pragmatic” rather than Eurosceptic, in that they support EU integration as long as it is favourable to the Netherlands. In Italy, despite a rise of anti-European positions among citizens, there has never really existed a Eurosceptic tradition. Thus, an ideological opposition to the European Union might not be the right strategy for populist, right-wing parties in order to win the elections. At least, in the Netherlands, it wasn’t. The Lega Nord, as well as other European parties of the same kind, are warned.

On the left side of the political spectrum, the “light-Euroscepticism” of the Dutch Socialist Party (SP) also didn’t pay. Despite very favourable polls before the elections, the party led by Emile Roemer didn’t go beyond 15 seats, the same number it got in the last elections. This poor result might be a warning for Beppe Grillo’s “5-stars Movement”. Even though the nature of the two parties is completely different (the Italian one is not even considered a party by its founder and members), they still both represent an alternative to mainstream traditional parties in the left-wing. The radical anti-European stances expressed by Beppe Grillo during the last months may backfire on the “5-stars Movement ” in the 2013 general election.

Lesson number two: the “Samsom-effect” and the renewal in the Italian Democratic Party.

Commentators have also given emphasis to the outstanding performance of the brand new leader of the Dutch Labour party (PvdA) Diederik Samsom, who brought the party back in the race despite unfavourable polls at the very beginning of the campaign. Mr Samsom was elected as PvdA’s leader after the resignation of Job Cohen last February. His communication skills, far better than the ones of his predecessor, have undoubtedly been beneficial to the PvdA, that has obtained 40 seats in the Dutch chamber, just one less than the winner VVD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy). Moreover, the new leader has represented a novelty factor, able to bring disaffected voters of the PvdA close again. Mr Samson’s great performance, good for the PvdA, should make the Italian Democratic Party (PD) think. The PD has often been blamed for its outdated ruling class, by both its opponents and its supporters. Apparently, a primary election to choose the party leader is to be held before 2013. Amid the candidates, the closest to Samsom’s profile is the underdog, Laura Puppato, former mayor of a small city in the Venice region. She has good communication skills and would indeed represent a novelty factor to bring the PD voters back together. However, unfortunately enough, she won’t be the PD candidate for the next elections.

Lesson number three: convergence of the votes on the mainstream parties.

In general, the main trend of the Dutch 2012 general election has been the following: the victory of the traditional, mainstream parties of the centre-of-right and the centre-of-left, respectively the VVD (41 seats) and the PvdA (40 seats). The third party, the SP, has obtained just 15 seats. As observed by Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde, many voters have preferred a strategic vote to an ideology-driven one. In other words, as soon as voters realized that smaller and more radical parties wouldn’t have been part of a future coalition government, they have conveyed their votes towards the establishment parties, that were going to form the core of the new government. In this case, the lesson for italian politics is both for mainstream and smaller parties. On the one hand, establishment parties of centre-of-left and centre-of-right should be aware of the responsibility they are given. However, should the Dutch trend be confirmed in Italy, it is unlikely that the centre-left Democratic Party and the centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) will rule together, especially is Berlusconi is going to be candidate premier of PDL once again. Therefore, they should carefully choose their allies, in order to form a stable coalition government. On the other hand, smaller parties should do their best to be perceived as credible coalition partners by the voters. In this sense, it seems that the Christian-democratic party UDC and the socialist party SEL (Left Ecology Freedom) have already started a process of approach to the Democratic Party, isolating former ally IDV (Italy of Values) by blaming its populist positions. On the right side of the political spectrum, the situation appears to be much more confused. There, the shock caused by the fall of Berlusconi and Bossi (former Lega Nord’s leader) seems to be too big for a recovery in the short term.

Still a big distance between Amsterdam and Rome…

Still, 1027 miles separate Amsterdam from Rome. The two political systems are too different to follow the same electoral path.There is still a big difference between the sunny country of pasta and the rainy one of stamppot. There is maybe an even greater difference between a country in which the leaders of the main parties are 45 (Rutte) and 41 years old (Samsom), and another one which is still asking itself if Berlusconi (76) will be back.