The Ukraine referendum in The Netherlands: the revenge of the distrusting undercurrent

Since its foundation in the 17th century, the history of The Netherlands has been marked by a tradition of continuous rivalry between the urban bourgeois/ elite and the common people. Most famous is the long (sometimes not so) cold war between the patriots (regents) and royalists, the latter backed up by the common people - all of this before The Netherlands became a monarchy in 1815.

Until this day, The Netherlands continues to be a monarchy – thanks to its successful marriage of pragmatic democracy and tradition. The system of ‘pillars’ worked almost flawlessly. It meant that the four dominant ideologies – the liberals, the social democrats, Catholics and Protestants – were all represented in the parliament and public management system by its own elite – cooperating at the highest level, while people at the bottom hardly interacted with each other.
This all changed in the 1960’s, when the cultural and democratic revolution swept over the country, altering The Netherlands from a wonderfully old fashioned country into an almost revolutionary society, demanding all sorts of direct democracy. D66 -  a progressive liberal party, founded in 1966 – had the binding referendum as its raison d’etre.
D66 almost succeeded in 1999, by making a referendum law that passed the parliament, but the senate blocked its efforts. Ever since, progressive politicians have tried to come up with an alternative. The ‘consulting’ referendum made its entrance. Every societal group or citizen that managed to obtain 300.000 signatures – around 2% of the entire population – could force the government to announce a referendum.
The first one turned into a disaster for the government and the pro-European elite in particular. In a referendum in 2005, a 61% majority of the Dutch voters blocked the European Constitution, forcing the European Union to come up with an alternative, especially since the French did the same. During this era, the widening gap between the liberal, cosmopolitan elite and the increasingly conservative general population became immanent. In 2002, Mr. Pim Fortuyn broke the decade long dominance of the Christian Democrats, Labour and Liberals with an anti-elite, anti-immigration and Eurosceptic program – only to be assassinated shortly before the elections.
But it didn’t take long before Mr. Wilders and his Freedom Party took the vacant spot – only to come up with a program that was even more anti-elite, anti-immigration and anti-EU. From the beginning om, Mr. Wilders was advocating a Nexit. The economic depression and problems surrounding Greece paved the way for growing Euroscepticism – in 2005, TNS NIPO measued that a small group (15-20%) opposed the Dutch membership op the European Union. By 2016, this group has almost doubled in size (30-35%).       
While the subsequent European parliament elections and national elections never turned into a sweeping victory for the Freedom Party and Socialist Party (which is to a lesser degree anti-EU), the anti-EU undercurrent remained strong. Another TNS NIPO research, this one among the ruling elite at the end of 2015 (commissioned by the national newspaper De Volkskrant), showed that the opinions of this ruling class almost diametrically opposed those of the general population – especially when it comes to refugees, immigration, equality and – the EU.  Another striking result: none of the members of this ruling elite was a member of the populist wing parties – or even considered voting on them.
GeenStijl –  an anti-elite, skeptical weblog, with a huge following – managed to obtain a lot more than 300.000 signatures for a referendum. This initiative was led by journalist Jan Roos and scientist/ activist Thierry Baudet, who wrote a book about the importance of the revitalization of the European nationalism. The subject: the treaty between the EU and Ukraine, already signed by all of the member states of the European Union. However, this referendum – to be held of April 6th - asked the Dutch population whether they wanted this treaty: yes or no.
In case the no camp would win AND the threshold of 30% turn out rate would be made, the government coalition and some of the opposition parties promised to do ‘something’ with the outcome. The ruling parties – the Liberals and Labour – were supporting the yes camp, but were very reluctant to campaign – remembering the disastrous adverse consequences in 2005, when some politicians warned the population that a no ‘could lead to another continental war’.
The no camp started quite early with the campaign, while the yes camp tried to keep it as quiet as possible after all. After all, they had a plan B to win: in case the 30% turn out rate wouldn’t be made. For a very long time, voting intentions were very low indeed. At the end of February – five weeks before the referendum, we measured that no more than 21% intended to go out and vote. Lots of people were commenting that they were against the idea of this referendum, had no trust in the way the government would deal with the consequences, lacked interest, or had no idea what this ’yes’’  or ‘no’ would mean. However, at that time it became already clear that the no camp was leading comfortably.
At the end of March and in early April, the no camp increased its lead. The worst news for the yes camp, however, was that the turn out rate surpassed the critical 30% threshold – causing some of its protagonists to panic and intensify the campaign. One of the last day ‘revelations’ was that prominent members of the no camp – albeit not Mr. Roos and Mr. Baudet themselves - publicly admitted that they didn’t care at all about Ukraine, their final goal was a Nexit. The no camp worried that the comfortable lead of the no camp in almost of the polls would cause many people staying home, thinking that the no camp would make it anyway.
Our last poll, however, showed that they shouldn’t worry: the no camp was more determined than the yes camp to show up, while anti-EU sentiments and anti-coalition sentiments were dominant reasons for the no camp – even more than abhorrence of Ukraine corruption and fear of Putin. Moreover, the ‘trade’ argument of the yes camp didn’t convince, just as the argument that this treatuy has nothing to do with a future EU-membership of Ukraine.
In De Telegraaf, the country’s largest newspaper, we published our last poll on April 2th:
  • We expected a turn our rate between 30-35%, and
  • A huge victory of the no camp: 62% versus 38%, making the outcome of the referendum valid.
On election day, things became very tense. The initial turn out rates seemed to be very low, causing serious doubt that the 30% threshold would be made. The first exit polls, shortly before closure, proved this: they forecasted a 29% turn out rate, with a 3% margin. The second poll later that evening, however, predicted 32%. This was confirmed after the majority of the results was made public. Furthermore, the no camp has won indeed by a large margin – the (final) results show that 61% voted against the Treaty, 38% was in favor and 1% didn’t make a choice (blanco).
In short: with both our turn out rate and forecasted result (62% no versus 38% yes) we were almost spot on! We did best of all of the pollsters – this hasn’t gone unnoticed by journalists, the general public and our clients!
Although the consequences of the outcome of the referendum aren’t clear yet, it will most likely fuel further anti-EU sentiments in The Netherlands. Moreover, it will most certainly affect the upcoming general elections (March 2017 at its latest), as well as set a precedent for the Brexit referendum.

Manuel Kaal
Research Executive
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