Illustration: Katharina Hofbauer

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Lots of water, bicycles – and cattle

By KLAUS MAX SMOLKA, graphics WOUTER VAN LOON · November 20, 2023

On Wednesday, the EU's fifth-largest economy will go to the polls – once again unscheduled. A look at a country that is special in many ways.


The election posters are now lined up again at the seat of government in The Hague and elsewhere in the Netherlands. More than two dozen parties are vying for the favor of the citizens. On Wednesday, the EU's fifth-largest economy will go to the polls – once again unscheduled, as the four-party coalition collapsed in July over asylum policy issues. The party landscape is becoming more and more fragmented, with twenty parliamentary groups now filling the 150-seat Second Chamber, which corresponds to the Bundestag.

There is no barrier clause like the five percent hurdle in Germany – at most, one could speak of a de facto hurdle of 0.67 percent, because 1/150 of the votes are needed for a seat. The election will be a special one: two new political forces – both socially conservative at their core – will appear; one of the two is ahead in the polls a few days before the election, tied with the ruling right-wing liberal party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

The country with almost 18 million inhabitants is a special one in many respects. It starts with its geographical location: near Nieuwerkerk aan den Ijssel in the province of South Holland, a blue measuring stick protrudes from the polder. The monument at the lowest point in the Netherlands symbolizes how far below Amsterdam Standard Zero (NAP) you are here, which is roughly equivalent to the average level of the North Sea. According to current calculations by the infrastructure authority Rijkswaterstaat, it is 6.78 metres – three times the height of the (women's) volleyball net.

A quarter of the country's surface area is below sea level, and just over half is threatened by flooding, according to the authorities. The water could slosh from the sea – the coastline is about 450 kilometres long – or it could come from the rivers; a delta of the Rhine, Meuse and other rivers runs through the country. In 2021, Dutch photographer Kadir van Lohuizen documented how rising sea levels threaten entire regions in an exhibition at the Amsterdam Maritime Museum.

A recently published study commissioned by the water protection authorities suggests that the Netherlands can technically arm itself against sea levels that are up to three metres higher, for example by reinforcing the dikes. But what if the dikes break? The authorities have this illustrated on the page ("Will I be flooded"). Citizens type in their postcode – and see how high the water will be for them. One and a half meters, for example, in some places in Amsterdam-North. There is zero danger at the highest point of the country, the border triangle in the south near Vaals, 322 above NAP.

In the international perception of the country, meanwhile, a political and economic discrepancy is emerging. Elections are rarely followed across the border – and when they are, it is usually because of the parties that are classified as right-wing populist and have been making a name for themselves since the beginning of the millennium. This time, too, the interest abroad came late. From an economic point of view, the Netherlands is the "largest of the small" in the EU. The World Bank ranks the country 18th globally. And it is Germany's third most important trading partner behind China and the USA. Conversely, Germany continues to be the most important partner for the Netherlands, despite its declining share.

Nowhere else in the EU do people live as close together as in the Netherlands – apart from the special case of the small island state of Malta. Eurostat, the EU's statistics agency, counts 513 inhabitants per square kilometre. If the many bodies of water, including the IJsselmeer, were included in the area, it would be almost a fifth less – but still by far the top value. Without immigrants, the population would have shrunk in 2022 for the first time in a long time.

Migration is a key issue in the election campaign. Non-Western immigrants can be roughly divided into three groups: After World War II, immigrants came from the old Dutch colonies: Indonesians, Moluccans, Surinamese, and Antillans. During the boom in the 1960s, companies such as those in Germany recruited workers from southern Europe, Turkey and Morocco. The third group consists of asylum seekers and refugees.

Even higher than the population density is the density of bicycles. With more than 23 million, according to estimates by industry associations, there are more bikes than citizens. This fulfils the common image of the number one cycling country. However, the Dutch still sit in the car a little more often than on the saddle.

In terms of energy policy, a lot revolves around the question of whether one or two nuclear power plants will be built – beyond the only power plant still in existence, Borssele. The four parties in the outgoing coalition – from right-wing and left-wing liberals to Christian Democrats and moderate Calvinists – are open to it, while the left-wing alliance of the Social Democrats and Greens, who have so far been in opposition, is opposed. The construction of a new reactor will probably take until the 2030s, which is why some consider the project dubious from the outset.

Until then, renewable energies should contribute much more to the mix. So far, their share is still below average compared to the rest of the EU. The second major energy issue is a thing of the past for the time being: the gas field in Groningen has had its day after six decades. Because the earth in the northeastern province shook more and more often and more strongly, the gas tap was turned off at the beginning of October.

However, the debate about extremely intensive agriculture and the high number of livestock is emotional. There are 3.8 million cattle and 11.3 million pigs – too many for some political parties, which is why the cattle population in particular is said to be shrinking.

This has generated angry protests from farmers and fuelled the debate about a gap between the western agglomeration of Randstad and the rural areas. This gave rise to the Farmer-Citizens' Movement (BBB), whose performance is one of the exciting aspects of this election.

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