Dutch voters have not become more punitive since the 1990s

In the Netherlands, like in other Western countries, we have been hearing the stories about the angry or alienated voter for a long time. Right wing populism has been present in parliament since the 1980s, and became really big with the electoral victory of Pim Fortuyn in the 2000s. Yet looking at the incumbency effect in municipal elections since 1990, we cannot find any ‘angry voter’ effect.

Despite the vocal presence of right wing populists, like Geert Wilders and Baudet, and left wing populists like the Socialist Party, the average Dutch person is not unhappy. Most people thought the country was moving in the right direction (whatever that means exactly) in 2018. As far as people’s trust in our institutions is measurable, people seem to have gained trust in institutions like the police, parliament and the rule of law since 2002.

Opinions about the Netherlands: It’s going in the right direction (light blue) vs in the wrong direction (dark blue).

Another way to look at whether citizens are become more discontented with politicians particularly is to study the incumbency effect. The incumbency effect is the effect that governing has on the electoral success of a political party. In the Netherlands voters tend to punish parties which took on the cloak of government, according to a research report two colleagues and I published recently. On average, parties lose 5% of their council seats in local elections due to having governed in the previous four years. However, this is the average effect since 1990. If citizens become more discontented with politicians, the incumbency effect should have increased.

What is interesting about studying citizen’s content with politicians through this lense is that we are studying actual behaviour, rather than what people respond to. Voting in an election for an incumbent party or an opposition party means you are revealing your preferences while their is skin in the game. Moreover, as voting is anonymous, the voter is only responsible to himself in the voting booth. In other words, studying voting behaviour may tell us more about what people really think about politics than a survey ever will.

In our research report, we also studied the incumbency effect over time. The graph shows the difference in the incumbency effect compared to 1990. For instance, in 1998 the incumbency effect was as big as in 1990, parties lost the same share of their seats as a result of governing on average. However, in 2010 parties lost 20% of their seats more than in 1990.

Interestingly, we do not actually see any clear linear effect over time. While incumbent parties were punished much more severly in the 2010 local elections, the effect in 2014 and 2018 is smaller than the effect in 1994, and the 2018 effect is not statistically significantly different from the 1998, 2002 or 2006 effect.

So, what does this tell us?

  • Perhaps the ‘angry’ voter simply does not tend to vote in local elections. If they never vote, then parties cannot lose their vote either.
  • Perhaps local politicians are adequately responding to voter’s preferences. Certain people may be unhappy with the state of the country, but they do see how local politicians are trying to improve the situation.
  • Perhaps the parties that the angry voter votes for are never incumbents.
  • Perhaps most voters are not all that more angry than 20 years ago.


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