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Dutch farmers' party wins big in provincial elections

March 16, 2023

The populist party has taken center stage in a sign of growing dissatisfaction with Prime Minister Mark Rutte's coalition.

BBB leader Caroline van der Plas (center) responds to the results for the provincial elections
BBB leader Caroline van der Plas (center) responds to the results for the provincial electionsImage: ROBIN UTRECHT/picture alliance

A populist party founded only four years ago is set to emerge as the biggest party in Dutch provinicial elections for the upper house of parliament on Thursday, after riding a wave of protests by angry farmers. 

The Boer-Burger Beweging (BBB), or Farmer-Citizen Movement, is projected to win 16 or 17 seats in the 75-seat upper house of the Dutch national parliament. 

The party gained popularity as Dutch farmers' protests ramped up in recent years, also gaining some global support, including from former US President Donald Trump and other right-wing or populist figures.

The farmers have been demonstrating against Prime Minister Mark Rutte's ruling coalition's plans to cut nitrogen emissions by slashing livestock numbers and possibly closing farms. 

Dutch farmers angry over emissions targets

How did other parties perform this election?

The four parties in the center-right ruling coalition were dealt significant losses. Combined, they are projected to have under a third of the Senate seats. 

"This is not the victory we had hoped for," Rutte, who has served as prime minister since 2010, said after the initial forecasts. 

The co-ruling Christian Democratic party is seen as one of the biggest losers in this election, losing almost half of its seats. The party has traditionally represented many farmers and conservative rural voters. 

The Labor party (PvdA) and the Greens (GroenLinks) are likely to win 15 seats combined, according to the preliminary results. 

The results force Rutte's coalition to choose to either work with a left-leaning leaning bloc with environmental ambitions, or with the BBB. The latter is aiming to soften policies regarding cutting nitrate pollution. 

"There is a choice in the senate — left or right," said Greens leader Jesse Klaver.

Despite its small land mass, the Netherlands is one of Europe's most prolific agricultural producers and exporters.

A 'historic' lesson for Rutte's coalition? 

Headlines about a "historic lesson" and a "reckoning with the Rutte government" covered Dutch newspapers on Thursday. 

The BBB has tapped into populist sentiments and resentment toward mainstream politics, appealing to voters who felt ignored by Rutte's government.

"Normally, if people no longer trust the government, they stay home," BBB leader Caroline van der Plas said in a victory speech. "Today they showed they don't want to stay at home — they want their voices to be heard."

But turnout only appeared to have risen slightly. Nearly 58% of eligible voters cast their vote on Wednesday, compared to 56% in 2019, according to Dutch broadcaster NOS. 

Midterm elections are typically seen as a chance for voters to express anger at the ruling coalition in the Netherlands, and fringe parties have enjoyed short-lived successes at them in the past.

Four years ago, the populist Forum for Democracy (FVD) won the biggest share of the election, but it suffered major losses in Wednesday's vote, and was projected to hold just 2 seats in the upper house.

All eyes on nitrate

The Dutch government is seeking to reduce the country's emissions of pollutants, mostly nitrogen oxide and ammonia, by 50% by 2030.

Farmers say the government's plans, including reducing livestock numbers by a third and possibly the "expropriation" of farms, are unfairly targeting them compared to sectors such as industry and transport.

"Let's hope we can find solutions that benefit our natural environment and that give perspective to farmers, especially young farmers, who are looking for a sustainable future," said Frans Timmermans, the EU's climate chief, as he congratulated the BBB on an "incredible result."

Van der Plas says Wednesday's vote was about more than the farm pollution issue.

"Nitrate is a symbol for dissatisfaction in the country," she told NOS on Thursday, adding that many BBB voters "feel unheard, unseen" by politicians in The Hague.

fb/mh (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)