Early elections will be held in the Netherlands on Wednesday 22 November following the fall of the government led by Mark Rutte, who had been prime minister for 13 years and who in July said he wanted to leave politics. With his retirement and a very fragmented political landscape, making hypotheses about the government that will be formed is very difficult. Among the leaders who have emerged in recent weeks, however, there is one that more and more commentators point to as a possible successor to Rutte: the former MP Pieter Omtzigt. His personal party New Social Contract (NSC) was founded three months ago, but is currently first in the polls.
Omtzigt is a particular politician, who focused his electoral campaign on anti-establishment rhetoric and the desire not to get too involved in controversies and arguments. He is a supporter of left-wing economic policies, and right-wing policies on immigration and voluntary termination of pregnancy. He said that if his party wins he could support another person for the position of prime minister.
As happens in other countries, in the Netherlands the prime minister is traditionally chosen by the party with the most votes and then confirmed through a vote in parliament. The leaders of the other main parties have already said they are ready to take on this role, but Omtzigt is not. In recent weeks Omtzigt has said he was surprised by his party’s success and therefore the potential opportunity to become prime minister, and appeared to indicate a preference for him to instead become his party’s leader in parliament.
Despite having been in politics for around twenty years and considered a rather shrewd politician, Omtzigt is trying to interpret a call for change that many voters and politicians in the Netherlands seem to see as necessary. In a survey conducted in September 2023 by the research and polling institute IPSOS, only 33 percent of respondents said they had confidence in the Dutch political class, and 72 percent thought the country was going in the wrong direction.
Omtzigt is 49 years old and entered politics in 2003 after obtaining a doctorate in economics in the UK and Italy (he speaks several languages, including Italian). For 18 years he was a member of the Liberal Conservative Party Christian Democratic Appealwhich he left in 2021 after being among those who revealed a major scandal over the family allowance system that brought down the third Rutte government.
The story began in 2012, when the then Rutte government asked about 20 thousand families back the monthly subsidies received as a contribution to raising their children, accusing them of fraud. However, after years it was discovered that these accusations were not based on evidence, but on an algorithm that created risk profiles, which were then used to identify the families who were closest to those conditions. Half the families were made up of people of foreign origin, many of whom had gone into debt over the years to repay the government and in general had handled the accusations with great difficulty.
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Omtzigt played an important role in uncovering the scandal: he conducted several parliamentary questions against the government, of which Christian Democratic Appeal was part, e he wrote a very critical and detailed report on the role his party had played in the case. In the 2021 elections that followed the fall of the government, Omtzigt was nevertheless nominated by the Christian Democratic Appeal and received more than 340 thousand preferences, more than any other politician who was not the leader of a party. Shortly thereafter, however, he took a four-month leave of absence for a burnout (syndrome of psychophysical and emotional exhaustion in the workplace) and returned to parliament as an independent.
Omtzigt said that it was impossible for him to continue his work within the Christian Democratic Appeal and that some of his party colleagues had called him “idiotic”, “psychopath” and “sick”. Already during the post-election negotiations to form a new government, a official of Christian Democratic Appeal he had been seen holding a piece of paper with the phrase “Omtzigt: position elsewhere” which had made many Dutch think that the party leaders wanted to assign him a role in the European institutions to distance him from important positions in the national government.
This episode only increased Omtzigt’s popularity and so, when Mark Rutte’s fourth government fell in July 2023 after failing to agree on a law to regulate immigration, Omtzigt announced that he would run with a new party, immediately receiving much support. His party has the same name as the book-manifesto that he published in 2021, New Social Contract.
Sarah de Lange, a political scientist at the University of Amsterdam, told the Guardian that Omtzigt is perceived by his voters as a man of “authenticity, principle and coherence”, a “defender of ordinary people against abuses of power by the state”. Among the most populist proposals in his program is that of establishing a special court to investigate the actions of politicians. During his election campaign he also said several times that he refused donations exceeding 850 euros.
The New Social Contract program is defined as centrist, but because it essentially combines progressive and conservative ideas. On the economy, Omtzigt supports ideas traditionally associated with the left, such as raising taxes on the rich, strengthening workers’ rights and raising the minimum wage. In the past he accused the Dutch left of “launching itself in a progressive program while forgetting the working class”.
At the same time, in an interview with Financial Times he said he is a supporter of right-wing policies on “immigration and values”, without however approaching positions he considers extremist. For example, he said that he would never ally himself with Geert Wilders’ far-right party, Party for Freedom (PVV), but he is in favor of greatly reducing the entry of both migrants with a work permit and asylum seekers .
According to a recent newspaper survey Algemeen Dagblad, Reducing immigration is the most important issue for Dutch voters, along with purchasing power and the functioning of the healthcare system. In 2022, the Netherlands received 37,020 asylum requests, the highest number since 2015: 2.1 per thousand inhabitants, Italy received 1.4.
Another proposal that can be classified among the more conservative ones is to reduce university courses in English because, according to Omtzigt and several other Dutch politicians, they have brought too many international students into the country who take advantage of the free Dutch university system and then return to work in their countries of origin, without contributing to the Dutch economy in the long term. The Association of Dutch Universities recently called this proposal “ridiculous” (it was also put forward by the last Rutte government).
An election poster with Pieter Omtzigt’s face in The Hague (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
Regarding the Netherlands’ relationship with the European Union, Omtzigt and his party believe that European institutions should adopt a stricter policy on migration and a stricter policy on public finances – a rather common position for any leader of the Netherlands. Caspar Veldkamp, NSC candidate and director of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, told the news site Politic that “temporary support in special cases is conceivable, but a permanent flow of funding is unhealthy and undermines support for European integration in many member states, such as the Netherlands.”
– Read also: Is the Netherlands a problem for Europe?
If he were to win the elections, Omtzigt said he could form a government both with the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), so far led by Mark Rutte and second in the polls, and with the electoral cartel between the Labor Party and the Green Left (PvdA-GL). Neither party has ruled out this possibility.
Regarding his doubts about becoming prime minister, Omtzigt explained that the position would be poorly reconciled with his role as a father of four children living 200 kilometers from The Hague and that becoming prime minister could alienate him from his electorate: in an interview he said it would be more useful for him “to be on a football field or in a church or in a school every now and then.” When asked if this position had anything to do with his burnoutOmtzigt said he has fully recovered and knows his limitations much better, which however led him to choose not to participate in some debates during the election campaign.
However, he did not clarify whether in this case he would propose someone from within New Social Contract for this role or whether he would support the election of the leader of another party, such as the new VVD leader Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius, or the former vice-president of the European Commission Frans Timmermans, leader of the alliance between Labor and the green left, third in the polls.